Monthly Archives: August 2013

Hitting the Dirt on Mountain Bike Trails

This story first appeared in Bike Fun in the online edition of the Mountain View Voice on August 27, 2013.

Did you buy a mountain bike because of the big fat tires and easy riding comfort, but the only times you’ve ridden it off-road were on the levee trails along the bay? That was me, until my friend Steph took me out on some dirt trails at Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto where I put the mountain back into my mountain bike.

To me, mountain biking is a lot like hiking. You get out of the city and feel like you’re far away from it all, even when you’re only a few miles away. I’m always surprised how much wildlife there is so close to town, from deer to wild turkeys to coyotes to gopher snakes. If you’re lucky, you might spot a bobcat or tarantula. I’ve seen all that and more, especially since I cover a lot more distance on a bike than on foot.

If you’ve only ridden on pavement before, there are some things you should know before hitting the dirt that will make your first ride a lot easier. Riding dirt isn’t hard if you make a few simple adjustments.

First, on the trail there are a few new rules of the road. As a mountain biker you need to yield to hikers and horses, as well as uphill riders. In particular, be aware that you and your bike can make horses nervous because you look too much like predator. As you approach horses, slow down to crawl, call out “hello” as soon as you’re within voice range, and ask the horseback riders how to proceed. Sometimes they will want you to stop and let them pass, other times they’d rather pull off the trail and let you pass. It’s all about communication. The same advice works for hikers. Be polite, communicate with them and don’t buzz by.

As for your bike, any bike with knobby tires works and some people can rock the dirt on slick tires too. Having a fork with front suspension smooths out the trail, but isn’t necessary for the moderate trails I’ve listed below. To set up your bike before your first dirt ride, all you’ll probably need to do is pump up the tires and go. But not too much. Lower pressure in your tires gives better traction on loose dirt and gravel. I set mine at 35-40 psi, which is the far low end of what my tires recommend.

If your attitude about shifting gears is “set it and forget it” on the streets, you’ll need to review shifting. Most trails in our area have steep sections so you’ll want to use your gears. In particular, the wide gravel roads that may look easier than the narrow trails also tend to suddenly get steep. Unlike the narrow trails, they were built for farm trucks with engines, not people on foot or on bikes.

After that, it’s all about the ride. Here are some techniques that can help you feel more comfortable and stable riding dirt.

Ready position
The ready position is used when you’re rolling down a trail like my friend Cindy is in the photo above, or rolling over obstacles like ruts or roots. First, put your feet in the pedals level at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions in a wide stance, then lift your rear out of the saddle, bend your elbows wide and look straight ahead down the trail. The goal is to stay balanced as the bike moves underneath you, like an English-style equestrian, where your legs are shock absorbers and you move forward and back and side to side as needed to stay balanced. Put one or two fingers lightly over each brake lever, place your palms lightly on grips and you’re ready to go.

Roots, rocks and ruts
You’ll need the ready position to roll over obstacles like ruts, roots and rocks. The other key is to brake as you approach the obstacle, then let go of the brakes and let your bike roll over the obstacle. For obstacles too big to roll over, look where you want to go to roll around it. Stare at that big rock and you’ll hit it for sure.

Mountain biking gets its name because most trails are hilly, at least in our area. The good news is mountain bikes have lower gears than road bikes. Use them! Downshift to your small chainring (left hand shifter) before the hill and then use the gears in your cassette (right hand shifter) to find the right gear. On really steep hills, the tendency is either for your rear wheel to slide out or your front wheel to pop up. The trick to staying balanced is to stay in saddle, slide forward on the saddle and lower your chest toward the handlebars. And there’s no shame in walking up the hill if it’s too steep.

Descending starts with the ready position described above with your rear out of the saddle. As the trail gets steeper, move your body further back behind the saddle. Moving your body back means you can brake with both your front and rear brakes together without flying over the handlebars.

Tight turning
Tight turns in trails, also known as switchbacks, can be challenging and rewarding when you learn to ride them. The best line to take is to go wide before the turn, look down at the apex to turn sharply and as soon as your front wheel gets close to the apex, look far down the trail. And keep pedaling, especially as you exit the turn when the tendency is to coast. Don’t feel bad if you can’t make the turn. It takes practice and some are hard to clear for experienced riders.

Walking the bike
In mountain biking everyone walks the bike sometimes. The easiest was to push your bike is to stand on left side of it so you can avoid bumping the chainring. Put both hands on the handlebars. If you’re walking the bike downhill, feather the rear brake (right hand) to control your speed. On super steep uphills, you can brake hard and use bike as a cane to help balance as you walk up.

Finally, as trite as it sounds, relax. If the trail feels too intense or you find yourself tensing your body or squeezing the hand grips tight, slow down and or stop for a bit. A stiff body makes everything harder. Take a breath, enjoy the scenery, walk it off if you need to and then roll again.

Here are two of my favorite local parks and trails that are great for first-time mountain bikers.

Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto
Arastradero Preserve offers rolling grassy hills with wide gravel roads and narrower smooth dirt trails very close to town. The park is small, but with proper planning, you can ride a dozen or more miles without too much repeating, and you can reverse direction for a new experience. I’ve marked an easier first-timer’s loop on the map in pink, plus a bonus loop in purple. The blue loop is where my friends and I ride after work, which is a good time to visit since the park has very little shade.

Long Ridge Open Space Preserve on Skyline Boulevard
Long Ridge offers smooth and shady trails along Peter’s Creek and great views from the ridge along Skyline Boulevard. My favorite starting location is Grizzly Flat, which is 3.1 miles south of Page Mill Road or 3.3 miles north of Highway 9. Watch your odometer to find the trailhead at the unmarked roadside parking.

Cindy at Long Ridge Wide

Categories: Bike Routes, Bike Skills | Leave a comment

Ready or Not, Bike Share is Coming

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the online edition of the Mountain View Voice on August 9, 2013.

When I walked out of the Caltrain station in downtown San Jose this morning there it was: a long row of empty bike docking stations for Bay Area Bike Share. The bikes won’t show up until the program’s launch that’s scheduled for later this month, but after hearing about bike share plans for over a year, seeing the equipment on the streets of San Jose made it all very real. Bike share is coming.

Bike share programs are designed for short trips across town, not long commutes or recreation or fitness rides. Members check a bike out from one docking station, ride away, then check the bike into another station near their destination. Stations are located near popular destinations like transit, stores and restaurants, and ideally near offices and homes where many people begin their trips.

Bay Area Bike Share is being launched as a pilot program in five cities along popular Caltrain stops: San Francisco, Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View and San Jose. Membership plans cover all five cities and are available on a 24 hour, 3-day or annual basis ($9, $22, and $88, respectively). Trips shorter than 30 minutes are free; keeping bikes out longer than 30 minutes means stiff additional charges designed to discourage longer trips. Members are also liable for $1200 replacement fee for bikes that are lost or stolen, but once you re-dock the bike your liability ends.

Bike share may be new to the Bay Area, but it’s found in over 500 cities worldwide, most famously in Paris and London, and over a dozen North American cities, including New York City, Montreal, Washington D.C., Minneapolis, Toronto, Denver and Chicago. My niece Alison and her husband use the Capital Bikeshare in Washingon D.C. regularly to go to the grocery, to visit friends, and to go out on dinner dates in the evening. Their small apartment in Capitol Hill doesn’t offer much room for storing bikes so they appreciate having a bike share station a couple of blocks away.

The bikes for the Bay Area will be very similar to the bikes from D.C. and New York City. The biggest difference is that our bikes will have seven gears instead of the three so people can climb San Francisco’s hills more easily, and they’ll be painted seafoam green. For the bike geeks, that’s the classic celeste color of bikes made by Bianchi. Bellísimo!

My friends and I were lucky enough to get a chance to test ride them last week at Thursday Night Live on Castro Street two weeks ago. We’re all daily cyclists, so we can be a fussy group to please. First impressions were that the bikes were comfortable and easy to ride, nimble when turning at slow speeds, and slow relative to our usual bikes. I was impressed with how the bike adjusted to fit everyone from five foot tall Megan to my husband Dick who stands six foot two. The bikes are fully equipped with a covered chain to keep clothing clean, a front rack to carry a purse or grocery bag, a bell for alerting pedestrians, and always-on front and rear lights for safe riding after dark. See the photo link for closeups of the bike’s features.

As a one year pilot, the Bay Area program is starting small with 700 bikes in 70 stations. There will be seven stations in Mountain View near Castro Street, near San Antonio shopping center, and at Rengstorff Park. (See map link in resources below) With additional funding the program may be expanded to more bikes and/or stations in Mountain View and in other cities. I sure hope it is since our home is a mile from the nearest station.

Do you think bike share will be as successful in the Bay Area as in other cities? Why or why not? How and when do you think you’ll use it?

Bay Area Bike Share Information:
Bike Fun Bike Share Photos:

Bay Area Bike Share Wide

Categories: Gear Talk | Leave a comment

A Rolling Art Tour in Palo Alto

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the online edition of the Mountain View Voice on August 2, 2013.

Public art can awe-inspiring, moving, perplexing or shocking, sometimes all at the same time. It can be the pride of a community or a target of scorn from critics. When it’s doing its job right, art provokes a reaction.

Art is best savored at a slower pace, by walking through a gallery or through a sculpture garden. When public art is sprinkled all over town, the whole city becomes an art museum and your bicycle lets you wander from gallery to gallery at a leisurely pace. On a bike, it’s easy pull over, hop off and reflect.

One of my favorite art tours by bicycle rolls all over Palo Alto sampling public art and then heads into Stanford University, home of an extensive Rodin sculpture collection. Below are the highlights, but there’s much more to see. In the resources section at the end you’ll find a link to a Google Map that you can download to your smartphone to navigate on your tour. Click on the pushpins to see photos of the art.

“The Avenue of the Arts” (California Avenue)
The California Avenue business district is only a few blocks long and a few blocks wide, but it packs in 14 pieces of public art in a broad range of styles. Be sure to stop at the award-winning “Sun Flowers”, a sculptural seating on the sidewalk in front of Country Sun Natural Foods. Seven tall bronze California poppies spin slowly in the wind while hidden solar panels harvest the sun’s energy to light up after dark.

Another popular sculpture is “Body of Urban Myth”, a classic nude holding a washing machine that cascades water as the centerpiece fountain of Sheridan Square. The square serves as the patio dining area for Caffe Riace, so unless you’re dining with them, I recommend visiting the sculpture in the off hours.

Rodin Sculpture Garden (Stanford University Campus)
Did you know that the world’s second largest collection of Rodin sculptures is right next door at Stanford University? The Cantor Center for Visual Arts holds over 400 pieces, with 20 large bronzes outside in their sculpture garden, including the massive “The Gates of Hell” that Auguste Rodin spent two decades perfecting. The garden is open all hours, with lighting for viewing after dark and picnic tables overlooking the garden.

If you’re visiting during museum hours, it’s worth locking up your bike and going inside to see his most famous sculpture “The Thinker.” Bike racks are available under the palms trees on Lomita Drive. Admission is free.

Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden (Stanford University Campus)
For a completely different sculptural experience, ride to the other side of Stanford’s quad to the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden. Under the shade trees you’ll find wood and stone carvings of people, animals, and magical beings that a team of master carvers created on-site in the summer of 1994.

Palo Alto Art Center (Embarcadero & Newell Roads)
Home to the Clay & Glass Festival every July, the Palo Alto Art Center has several large sculptures on its grounds, including the impressive “Albuquerque” that’s a highly visible landmark for those traveling down Embarcadero Road. Also at the Palo Alto Art Center is the equally grand in scale, but less permanent, sculpture by Patrick Dougherty. Constructed in January 2011 with the help of local volunteer artists, the work bends and twists saplings into a curious structure that evokes a magical row of houses. The sculpture still stands strong today, albeit with vines sprouting from its north end.

On your way back to Mountain View, a shortcut through Mitchell Park will bring you past two bold art pieces that are surprisingly located in a park more oriented toward more active recreation. Now that I discovered the mighty woman of “Push” I make a special loop through for a quick art fix that makes me smile every time.

Bike Fun Sculpture Tour Map:
More Outdoor Sculpture at Stanford:

Art Tour Profile Pic Adam Wide

Categories: Themed Tours | Leave a comment

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