Monday, October 12, 2015

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Holy shit I actually suffer from vertigo, or at least extreme paranoia of heights. And I'm somewhat of a rock climber. What the hell is happening?

Welcome to part 4 of our tandem adventure!

These thoughts were freight-training through my mind while my wife and I, aboard our trusty tandem, tried to pedal across a bridge that spanned THE MIGHTY FRASER RIVER in southern Vancouver, British Columbia.

This monument of engineering would effectively result in the end of our cycling for the day, save for a few extra miles to reach a safe haven (a Starbucks, of all places). No Tim Horton's for us today!

Before this mental shutdown occurred, our ride started some 40 miles earlier, with a bit of wiggling and wobbling. The tandem had never been loaded up with a full complement of gear. We didn't have front racks, and so all of our luggage was piled upon the rear rack. A backpack and two panniers holding on for dear life.

The plan was to ride up to Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver, B.C. with all of our belongings. There we'd be able to stay with family members for a few days, eat tasty food, get fat, etc. The usual family affair, I'd say. All we had to do was pedal approximately 30 miles from Bellingham, Washington, cross the international border into Canada, and then do another 15-20 until we reached our stopping point. Easy enough, it seemed.

But bike maps and green lines on Google Maps don't always tell the full story.

The run out of northern Washington state was nice enough. A few solid climbs, but mostly flat, straight roads through the country. Weather was a bit warm, but things were going well. The tandem tracked well enough with the excess luggage once moving, but speed wobbles could still occur if we weren't careful on fast downhills.

It was actually all too easy getting to the international border, and even getting through it. Once on the north side of the crossing, we had a bit of lunch and phoned our family to tell them we had made it through what we thought would be the hardest part.
One of the only photos we took! The physical and mental drain made it hard to photograph otherwise.

For the next 10 miles or so, it was actually more of the same. We were definitely getting a bit tired at this point, but the road was again flat, and cars were not such a problem. We decided to take a bike path that came recommended by multiple sources, once we got into southern Surrey. This would lead us along a main highway and take us over the Fraser River. Unfortunately, upon arriving we realized that the path itself was dirt and gravel.

Dirt turned out to not be a problem. But the path was punctuated with sections of gravel, sand, and other loose stuff. This was a huge issue for us. The tandem had slick road wheels, was a bit light in the front, and didn't cope well. We almost ate it a few times. At one point, we hopped over a shoulder divider and attempted to carry on along the highway. Turns out that wasn't the best idea. It was definitely not intended for cyclists. High speed on and off ramps made it basically impossible to carry on much further than a few miles. So we quickly ditched this route by exiting on a long, swooping off ramp. It was a pretty rough climb, and we were quite scared that a semi-truck or something else would run us down!

Once off the highway, we quickly found the dirt bike path again. It was a bit better at this point, but the going was slow, and we were getting cranky. The terrain also brought along a bunch of short, super steep hills. Not what we needed.

Eventually we wrangled our way over some train tracks and to a dedicated bike path which was tacked onto the side of the Alex Fraser Bridge. From the map, it looked like the bridge wasn't so long. But it came into being quite a ways from the shore on either side and was maybe a mile long. It was also quite steep until you reached the middle portion. With a fully loaded tandem, traveling at such slow speeds up a steep hill, we weren't exactly stable. In addition, the bike path wasn't very wide and the railing was both see-thru and not very tall. All of this added up to some extreme discomfort on my part. I was basically gripped with some inordinate amount of fear. We had to dismount and walk. And we'd walk the entire length of the bridge to the other side.

Despite having the bridge out of the way, we were pretty disheveled. This southern portion of Vancouver was very industrial, and navigating was difficult with the number of starts, stops and turns we had to make. Realizing that some huge climbs would come at the very end of the journey, but knowing we probably wouldn't be fit to make them, we hatched a plan to make it to a stopping point (the aforementioned Starbucks on the eastern peninsula of Richmond) and call in for a pickup.

After hobbling in to our new destination, we eventually reconciled that we had made it quite far in our journey. It was quite a relief to know that we'd not have to navigate further unfamiliar city roads and vehicular traffic. We just had to wait for my Aunt and Cousin to show up so we could bring our tandem and ourselves to the true endpoint.

Despite this unintended stopping point, the ride itself was quite successful. There were some tense moments along the way, and a few shouting matches, but my wife and I did a great job on our northward adventure. The Northwest Tandem Rally perhaps served as a warm up for this specific ride. I'm sure that if we had not honed our abilities in the days prior, this ride up to Vancouver might have gone much worse!

After spending a few days in Vancouver with family, and eating lots of tasty food, we made a very wise decision to get dropped off, tandem in tow, at the international border itself. It wasn't like the bridge would be any easier heading south, and the enjoyable part of the ride was primarily in Washington (no offense to Vancouver, but we felt like you didn't want us to cycle there!).

Getting back into America proved very easy. Perhaps Obviously because we were white, but also because cyclists get to skip the line. You see, Canada has a separate "drive-thru" lane for cyclists. You basically use the same booth that cars entering Canada do. But for the US, you're forced to push/walk/bullshit your way down some lousy sidewalk after Froggering your way across a sea of vehicles that are hopefully going slow. Then you need to park your bike out in front of a large ominous building.

Inside, you bear witness to various non-white ethnic groups having a hard time getting into the country. For all kinds of stupid reasons, I'm sure. As I said, we had it easy, and when a clerk noticed our dopey cycling kit and clacky shoes on the linoleum floor, beckoned us to a special "cyclists-only" line. Maybe it was also just not a very busy day. Nonetheless, they anecdoted us with some stupid story, stamped a stupid stamp, and wished us a good day (in a stupid way).

We were on our way yet again. The small seaside down just south of the border was very pleasant to bike through. Oddly, the quality of the bike lanes heading south were...lousier. Like they wanted people to easily pedal to the border, but not pedal back. I can only imagine why. We gracefully made our way south toward Bellingham yet again. But this time, we didn't have a nice hotel to arrive at. Rather, our destination was the impeccable Bellingham Cycle Works, but not before we stopped at Bellingham's YMCA to take a quick shower.

All cleaned up, we pedaled the few remaining miles to the bike shop. Here began a rather tedious process of packing our tandem into a box that was honestly a bit too small. We knew it would work, having safely shipped the bike to Bellingham in the first place, but things never fit the same way the second time around. We also tried to jam all of our cycling clothing, helmets included, inside as well. This would save us from having to lug it around during the second leg of our trip, which involved no tandem biking and but more Bostonian accents. A fair trade!

I managed to forget to pack my cycling shoes during all of this, so we had to make a secondary trip to a post office to drop those off. Not a huge deal, fortunately. Otherwise, we left the rather large package with Bellingham Cycle Works who agreed to see it off when the FedEx truck would arrive a few days later. I had scheduled via BikeFlights.com a pickup that would return the bicycle to my work back in San Diego. Hopefully someone would sign for it and put it in a safe place!

Now with no mode of transportation besides our own two (four?) legs, we had to phone a taxi to pick us up and take us to the airport. Our flight was not until later in the evening, where we'd catch a redeye that would whisk us away to the home of Harvard Square. The timing was quite good, having suffered no mechanicals with the tandem, nor other issues that prevented us from getting to the airport on time.

At this point, I could let myself relax. I'm sure my wife was relieved as well (if only because she saw that I finally relaxed a bit). Our first tandem adventure had wrapped up successfully. We learned a lot in only a few days about how to ride a tandem together. It definitely improved our ability to communicate, at least on a tandem bike.

Throughout the trip, and even ever since we had acquired the tandem, people had joked about it being a rolling divorce machine, or an expensive way to a fast divorce, and so on. I can definitely see where that comes from, but fortunately our ability to deal with stressful situations shone through. We had about as many ups and downs as we did hills during the ride. But by trying to take turns being stressed out, we managed to conjure up enough support for one another to make it through all of the hard bits. My wife did a fantastic job of navigating, pedaling, and keeping me stoked during the ride. Hopefully I did the same for her!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Chuckanut Drive

Here is part 3 of my gripping recount of the 2015 Northwest Tandem Rally!

Back at the hotel, we were either eating or laying down. The tandem was running quite well, and now rested up against our hotel room wall. I had put a lot of smaller efforts pre-trip into getting it ready, and remarkably no major work was needed. It was a new-old-stock Santana Arriva. Size small, though still a bit long in the captain's ol' top tube, if you get my drift. I think it was a 2003. Quite honestly, for $975 it was a screaming deal to get us into a higher-end tandem bike. I had never seen 9-speed brifters in such immaculate condition.

We stopped by Fred Meyer's to stock up on bars and other foods. For some reason I get excited when I visit a new-to-me chain supermarket. Especially when they sell other stuff that isn't food. I got the same feeling when I first entered a Menards in Indiana.


The plan at that point was the get plenty of sleep and meet our new friends in the camping area that NWTR had set up for those who didn't want to hotel it. It was a few blocks away, and at 8AM we managed to roll up on our tandem. The friendly couple was living comfortably in a converted Sprinter RV. I'm way into Sprinters, so this was a good start to the day. My wife seems to have no qualms about potentially living in one in the future, so I'll keep that option tucked into my back pocket for now.

Our friends promptly got suited up, and we rolled out. The route itself was pretty straightforward, and we had timed our departure well enough to quickly meld into a small group of other tandem riders.

We only made it so far before an incident occurred. The front tire of another tandem bike got hung up on the edge of some pavement that was slightly elevated above the bike lane. It was akin to riding along a small sidewalk curb, causing the upper weight of you and the bike to topple over. This is something I see every now and then, and it’s tricky to see ahead of time or recover from if it’s a big enough lip. Both captain and stoker fell over, but they seemed okay. To be honest, I expected broken bones, but as I said before…ageism on my part.

The group started moving once again. The scenery was a mix of coastal homes and big trees, with faint glimpses of the cliffs and ocean below. We continued climbing higher along the coast, eventually getting nearer to the cliffs edge such that we could take in some nice views. The fires populating the Pacific Northwest had managed to cast a thin aura of smoke over everything in the distance. The views were nice, but my photos didn't really capture that...



My somewhat-demanding shifting style was being adopted reasonably well by my wife. I really hate shifting under power, as you can hear the entire drivetrain crackle and groan. We basically became accustomed to me stating “shifting!” whenever I was about to do so. Otherwise, my wife wouldn’t know to let off the pedaling a bit. It was more of a concern on chainring shifts, as you could run into other issues such as dropped chains and so forth. Other groups didn’t seem to abide by any timing of shifting. I listened to their chains drag across the gears. It sounded awful, but maybe you just accept this fate after some time riding together.

Our ride continued further, and we reached the first pit stop. I’m amazed we didn’t blow by it, actually. The turnout was on a very steep downhill, and not marked entirely well. It was a campground along the coast. It might actually be nice to stay at during a separate visit. We filled up our bottles, ate some fruit and donuts (the latter of which never seems to pan out well for me) and carried on with our tandem companions. The big hill continued downward until we reached a very flat region of farmland that ran along the coast. It was nice to drop out attention for a few miles. Bombing downhill on a tandem creates some additional excitement and it’s a bit nerve racking for both riders.




Speaking of bombing downhill, I should mention that prior to the trip the front brake was suffering from very chattery and squealing behavior. I changed the pads to some KoolStops, which helped somewhat. But the trick wound up being a brake bridge. It wasn’t even particularly fancy, just some $9 piece of plate steel cut into the proper shape. It boosted the stiffness of the cantilever mounts enough that the chatter basically disappeared unless you really, really, really went hard on the brakes. Now we wouldn’t draw as much attention to ourselves.
Yep...this little $5 thing solved our noise woes
The flat riding continued southward. At a major intersection, we opted to take a truncated version of the long route, versus the more direct medium route path. It led us out to  a peninsula. We had high hopes for scenery and so forth, but ultimately it was kind of a letdown. There was a fair bit of wind, we were already pretty tired, and a particular hill caused some grumpiness to well up inside of us. We came out of the peninsula section a bit worse for wear.

Fortunately, upon returning to that initial intersection where we’d pick up the return portion of the loop, there was soon another pit stop. We definitely needed it. The organizers had set up alongside a small farm. It was quite nice, for whatever reason, despite offering similar fare to the other stops prior. They did have Spam, to say the least.

We gently hopped back on to the saddles, at this point suffering sore behinds. I had picked up a new saddle from The Hub Cyclery. It was some vintage Specialized thing. Actually quite a nice fit, I thought, and it only cost $5, but obviously my buns didn’t have the proper endurance. My wife was having a hard time as well, and so we took turns  standing up and relieving some pressure. This return loop was another nice section of road. Effectively devoid of traffic, and with nice breezes and some shade.

There were a few particularly challenging hills to contend with. One of them even elicited a cry of “you need to put out some watts”. Yes, I was the one who uttered this very Fred-like phrase. To be fair, it was partially to amuse myself, partially to amuse my wife, and partially to convey some sense of urgency during the hill climb. Feeling a tandem bike start to wobble from lack of speed is unsettling, and we were having just that problem. But my pep talk, or pep line, I suppose, had also caused my wife to begin laughing uncontrollably. I quickly noticed that her laughter and her power output were inversely related. Every stifled, panting breath of amusement created more slow-speed wobbles. I tried to make up the difference, and basically blew myself up on this incredibly steep quarter-mile climb. I wasn’t annoyed, per se. Just very tired. At least we made it! It would set the stage for what we could pedal up. A good motivator when other hills showed themselves.

The last hill was a bit less funny for my wife. It was at the very, very end of the ~50 mile loop. Kind of unfair, she said. I agreed. But we made it up, and coasted all the way back into town, to a park where the organizers had set up the afternoon lunch and desert. Ice cream and sandwich wraps. And shade and a place to sit down. We were very happy to be there. The ice cream was from a place we had visited a day earlier, while walking around downtown, so we knew it would be good.






After recovering for about an hour, we reluctantly climbed aboard the tandem again. It was all downhill from here, in a good way. We rolled back to our hotel, and I can’t quite remember what happened after that, other than getting dinner and going to sleep. The next day would bring upon us another long ride, but one that proved much more challenging!

By the way, I actually got the GPS up and running for this ride. Here's a map of our route. Note the out and back on the southern peninsula.