Friday, 5 August 2016

Fat tyres head west

After a 5 hour flight the relatively cool dry air of San Francisco was a welcome change from the heavy moisture-laden heat of the south.

Anita’s sister Nicki picked us up from the airport and we headed south on the 280 to the somewhat familiar environs of Los Altos and the Stanford Linear Accelerator.  It was nice not having to spend the next few days huddled in front of the beamline, as has traditionally been my reason for visiting SF.  The following day Anita and I headed into SF proper – to get sore feet birding the Presidio area before catching up over a beer and clam chowder with Romain, a former colleague now at Berkeley.  Really needed another couple of days to check out SF proper.
The following day we loaded up the beast (5 bodies and 5 bikes!) and headed north east, destination Lake Tahoe, on the boarder between California and Nevada, deep in the Sierra Nevada range.  Accommodation was a pretty swanky cabin within a golf resort (Old Greenwood) just outside of the appropriately named town of Truckee, and landscaped with elegant pines and grassy sage with a backdrop of mountains peppered with white patches and ski resorts.  Classic big sky feel.  Truckee is the modern version of the classic one-street western town we’ve all seen in the movies, although fortunately no one is swaggering about with gun belts these days.  Instead, the place was abuzz with ski/bike shops, restaurants and bars. Whilst Nicki spent some time with the boys Anita and I sampled a few of the many mountain bike trails. 

It wasn’t just the dry air that was different to North Carolina – the general rootiness of the Appalachian trails was swapped for rockiness of the Sierra Navada.  The jungle and claustrophobic deciduous canopy of Pisgah was replaced by open forests of pines, firs and spruce, open spaces, sagebush and straw-dry grasslands.  And dust.  Lots of it, as we rattled along the Emigrant trail on a loop north of Truckee which had us pretty roasted come the end, and well deserving of Truckee milk shakes of ice-cream headache proportions.  The American milkshake is something to behold, equivalent to what we call thick shakes in Oz - multiple scoops of ice cream seem to be the main ingredient.

Strangely enough the Emigrant trail triggered nostalgia for the kind of big sky experience which I’ve not actually experienced at all, and has me thinking about what magical experience riding the great divide might behold.

The second day of riding explored some more mountainous trails, this time to the south of Truckee, firstly exploring the heavily shaded Sawtooth trail – rocky as all hell in places – not exactly to Anita’s liking given her dodgy shoulder, but with great views down to the Truckee river.  We then clawed our way up some pretty dusty firetrail to an altitude higher than Oz, before sidling round to the NorthStar Ski resort, which was like Thredbo on steroids – dual suspension bikes everywhere – not a bottle cage in sight.  Refreshment for the gravity hounds took the form of tuckshops, which were doing a brisk trade at the base of the chairlifts.  We jumped on one of the muscular groomed XC trails for a taste, but due to time and heat issues bailed for the fast road descent back to Truckee and more milkshakes.  I think NorthStar is going to warrant a proper investigation next time – with a dropper post and some more travel.

On both of these outings we got good views of some new birds but in most cases struggled to recall sufficient details for identification, although before leaving for the coast did mange to finally nut out the mystery bird we’d been seeing (badly) for days: Northern Flicker.

Back in Palo Alto we still had a morning of riding up our sleeve, and opted for a route Anita had previously done a few years ago on a roadie; the Old La Honda Circuit, supposedly a classic.  It was not to disappoint.  Mostly on quiet back roads, the main feature is a stunning climb, 8% grade for 5 km, through tunnels of absolutely beautiful greenery, the top third comprising magnificent stands of Californian Redwoods.  Hands down one of the prettiest climbs I’ve ever done, anywhere.  Just past the top we took snaps in front of Alice’s Restaurant, named in homage to the Arlo Guthrie song by the same name, before a great descent lead us back to coffee closer to home.

Thus concluded our little foray into riding some different trails in the US of A. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what is an immense playground for those interested in doing stuff outdoors.  Thanks to Kev and Dee in Charlotte, and Nicki in Palo Alto for being such gracious hosts.  No doubt we’ll be back to have another taste of what your (adopted) country offers in years to come.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Fat tyres abroad

Rather than hit Europe in tour time, as originally planned, this year we ended up in the US instead.  And rather than take the roadies, at Kev's suggestion we lugged the mounties. Destination Charlotte, North Carolina, three hours west of the Indian ocean, two hours east of the southern reaches of the Appalachian mountains, the range that runs down the eastern states, and safely in Republican territory.  Unbelievably it is 20 years since I arrived for my New York sojourn.

After a gruelling 16 hour flight to Dallas, followed by a short connection, we were transformed from chilly Sydney winter to standard southern heat and humidity, which was quite a shock to the system.  Slow fans on the balcony with a cool drink in hand as the cicadas hum.  But Kev and Dee's home was well shaded, air conditioned, and aside from usual jet lag issues, felt comfortable immediately. 

I put the bikes together.  We crammed into cars and headed west to Asheville in the mountains proper, to a palatial cabin to while away the next four days.  Kev, Dee, Lisa, Ham, the Mudge and I were joined by Dee's twin sister Aline and her husband Matt, who was deep in training for Leadville (one of the premier single day mtb classics on the US calendar) just a month away.

We awoke to cooler temperatures and a plan.  Matt was keen for a "6 to 7 hour" hit out and I was deemed most likely to keep up with him.  We left early to beat the heat and made a day of it.  Ham was in need of a rental bike, and Anita was nursing a sprained ankle collected in transit (them airports be dangerous places), so Kev, Ham and Anita made a more relaxed start before hitting a different set of trails.

The ride Matt had planned turned out to be one of the most enjoyable big days out on a bike I've ever experienced.  So good!  Approximately two thirds of it was on fire-roads of various grade and quality, but constantly weaving under a canopy of lovely forest and jungle, crisscrossing meandering streams, which were reminiscent of NZ.  Welcome to the breathtaking beauty of the Pisgah mountain area.  The canopy kept the temperature sane (just).  As we climbed and descended we could feel ourselves punching through micro climes of temperature and humidity, matched by changes in vegetation.  I had no idea that the understorey would be dominated in places by groves of Rhododendrons, some heavily in flower, with plant size coupled to altitude. 

We eventually popped out at a sealed road and climbed to gain the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic road which winds its way across the spine of the Appalachian range through Virginia and North Carolina.  Terrific views. We eventually attained our local high point for the day (the highest point on the parkway, approx 5500 ft.... think Charlottes Pass) just as the heavens opened with a taste of what seems to be the daily afternoon thunderstorm.... or two.  As the local saying goes...if you don't like the weather, just wait 15 minutes.  Heading for home we pinned the ears back to descend the best part of 20 km at 40-70 km/hr before plunging back onto fire-roads for the final run home.  125 km in 7 hours with almost 3 km of vert.  So Good.

With Matt's departure, our second day was to be one of whooping it up on singletrack in the Black Mountain area of Pisgah.  The best laid plans got waylaid by the male contingent ignoring the female minority.  And once a few tree-log bridges have been traversed, and bikes carried two dozen times to get through terrain that horses apparently have no trouble with, male logic dictates that pushing on is easier than acknowledging lostness.  In any case, we did eventually get back on track, in the sense that we eventually worked out where we were on the map, and aimed for a track that was reportedly Pisgah's finest, a ridge which descends Black Mountain. Again, it's nearly always worth reading the fine print.

Initially we just assumed that a couple of dozen stairs were the price one pays for single track nirvana.  But these sections of steps went for the best part of 2 km, which was spiced up even more so by all of us being attacked midway by the local chapter of hornets, the benignly named Yellow Jackets.  They certainly packed a wallop! 

We eventually gained the summit ridge before tackling the first of an endless series of muscular descending chutes, the kind that give one the full body workout.  Progress was slow, none of us wanting to break anything, and further hindered by Kev's deflating front wheel.  But the tire change did provide opportunity to marvel at a pile of what we thrillingly assumed might be bear poo (the girls had a bear visit the porch of the lodge the day prior), and which we later realised was more likely deposited by a large cat.....extra incentive not to be dawdling at the back [postscript – no credible recent sightings of mountain lions in the east – bobcat or coyote more likely].  A long time later we finally hit the trail we originally intended on riding, which did indeed provide the flowing magic carpet experience we'd sought in the first place.  But the heat, the wasps, the pounding, and dehydration had all taken their toll.  Four and a half hours for 25 km....not a day we'll forget in a hurry.  We were just happy to get out of there alive.

Day three of riding turned out to be absolutely top shelf.  Brilliantly manicured on the bermed playground of DuPont forest - another part of the Pisgah area.  Just like Rotorua, well worth getting on a plane for in its own right.  So good!  Nuff said. Just pour me another beer.

By this stage another bear had been seen at the lodge, this time by Lisa, who was well on top of most of the birds too.  We bid the lodge farewell and spent another few days in Charlotte, hopping between air conditioned buildings, riding some nice local trails (National Whitewater Centre), birding some lovely local gardens, and staking out bird feeders in Kev and Dee's backyard.  The suburban bird life had Anita, Lisa and myself mesmerised, especially the prospect of good views of ruby-throated hummingbirds.  So much more variety than what the average Sydney garden throws up. 

Alas, time to give Kev, Dee (and Tommy) back their space, bid Ham and Lisa safe travels (hang onto that passport Ham!) and give the San Francisco area a look in before heading home.