Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Spring Ride

Every biker knows about the “Spring Ride.” It’s when the snow has melted and the temperatures have warmed up enough that the faithful stead can be rolled out of the garage and fired up. After a winter on a battery minder and a tank full of Sea Foam or STA-BIL, the ride is as anxious as the rider to get out on the highway, burn some petrol, roll some rubber, and feel the wind in her pipes.

Sure, those lucky bikers in Florida or Arizona or SoCal, they can ride all 12, but most of the rest of us have to put away two wheels for the winter. So the anticipation builds and the joy is maximized on that first ride of the spring, even if there are still a few signs of winter hanging around on the ground or our own flabby selves need a recovery from the hibernation by the fire. It’s time for the Spring Ride!

Mine came on March 31st, a day that dawned with sunshine and the promise of 80° temperatures, at least here in the flatlands — ten or more degrees cooler in the high country. Still it was sunny and I was ready and so the time had come. I’d made my plans, marked my map, and prepared my stead. Fresh tank of gas — check. Oil and Air — check. Boots, jacket, gloves, helmet — check. A kiss goodbye from my companion, and I was off on a Spring Ride.

The schizophrenic Colorado weather was promised to behave today and snow was indicated by the weekend, so it was time. I fired up the black bike and let her idle and warm in the driveway as I completed the task of dressing with sleeves zipped over gloves and helmet down low over my ears. For today’s ride I’ve chosen my favorite, a 3/4 coverage helmet with an open face.

Colder weather or longer rides would call for a full-coverage helmet, cooler weather for a face shield, and a ride around the neighborhood for a half-helmet. Half helmets provide the least protection, and I remove the ear covers to get the best hearing around town. Above 40 mph the wind noise gets pretty severe, so half-helmets rarely leave the city limits on my head.

For this nearly 200 mile jaunt I picked my favorite compromise. Like Bob Pirsig, I prefer an open face with just my regular glasses. The wind in the face is part of the joy, although hitting a bug — and I’d hit plenty on this ride — at 60 miles per can carry a decided sting, it’s worth it. Bugs on the teeth … the sign of a happy motorcyclist.

The first ride after the winter requires great care. First off, it has probably been a while since you’ve been on a bike. The skills will return … the “touch and feel.” But give it some time. Don’t head full speed into the first turn or roar up to the stop sign with the plan to grab the front brake so hard the rear wheel lifts off the pavement. Take it slow.

There are winter hazards still around from sand and other slide-y stuff on the road to animals and people not used to seeing bikes for the last several months. That especially applies to those humans wrapped in two tons of steel moseying down the road without a care … or thought … in the world. They’re not used to seeing bikes out and you’re even more invisible than usual.

As safety expert Mark Gardiner will tell you, “Watch the drivers, not the cars.” Look inside cars to make sure drivers are driving, not talking on cell phones, doing their makeup, making out, shaving (don’t laugh, I’ve seen it!) or eating a gooey hamburger with two hands while steering with a knee. If you see any of those things, create extra space.

While many drivers will change lanes without signaling or shoulder-checking, they will still telegraph moves like that with body language. If you see a driver ahead of you turn his head to glance into your lane, expect him to move into it whether he signals or not. Make eye contact. If you can’t see a driver’s eyes, he can’t see you. Always be aware that you’re in a driver’s blind spot. How can you tell? Look for his eyes in his mirrors. If you can’t see his eyes, move to a safer position.

Soon I had my motor runnin'
Head out on the highway
Looking for adventure
In whatever comes our way

I rode north on country roads. We had plenty of country roads growing up in Montana. The big difference between here and then is that Colorado roads are mostly paved. I guided the bike up 95th and through some tight corners. The flat lands of the Colorado plains tend toward straight roads until they encounter natural obstacles such as lakes, reservoirs, and a farmers field. Then they adjust with tight 90° turns, some of which are banked and some of which are like city streets.

As I navigate toward my first highway, CO 34, I enjoy the scenery and early morning sunshine. There are homesteads over one hundred years old intermixed with the latest mansions and country estates. Homes with enough garages to make me envious and all manner of livestock from cows and bulls to the exotic Emu. Plenty of horses and even some sheep and pigs line up along the roadside for my quick inspection as I keep my eyes peeled for remnants of winter in the sand and gravel, often rather deep near stop signs and sharp turns.

Soon I reach the outskirts of Loveland and start up the twisty Big Thompson Canyton on highway 34 towards Estes Park. This steep and narrow canyon has seen frequent floods from the devastating killer flood of 1976 which took 145 lives when a big thunderstorm parked at the head of the canyon and sent a 19 foot high wall of water down this narrow stretch moving ten foot boulders like toy blocks to the lesser, but more widespread flooding of nearly two years ago.

People rebuilt from the first flood, only to see a repeat. This time was milder, but still a very damaging flood in 2013. This second big storm affected more of these narrow mountain passes, but brought much less loss of life, partially due to changes made since that first disaster and also because of a more gradual build up of water and better warnings. Still I would see loss of property and desolation on my ride, as well as newly rebuilt roads and bridges.

The first few miles up the canyon are the tightest as the 45 mph is interrupted by frequent 25 or 30 mile per hour warning signs in the tight curves. I can take a 25 mph curve at 45 with no sweat and 55 mph if I pay careful attention to the basics of line and lean. I’m sure I could round the 25ers at 65, but that would be the limit of this street bike’s tires and rider, and I prefer the steady 45 going of the legal limit.

Taking these sharp curves in a car forces the driver to hold on tight and rely on the seat belt to keep him (or her) in place as Newton’s laws work their magic forcing bodies to adjust to the lateral acceleration. On a bike, on the other hand (or foot), the magic lean takes all the side force and treats it like gravity. Just like those astronauts in their acceleration chairs, or those jet pilots rolled deep into a turn, the force is always downward through the seat of the pants and you don’t hang on at all. Just gentle adjustments of the handle bars to keep a steady line, combined with a careful eye for stuff on the road like sand or gravel or cars that don’t keep on their side of the yellow line.

At one point I was passed by a dirt bike going about 30 over legal. I wondered at the tires his off-road machine had equipped were meant for pavement, or the cost of his automobile insurance after all the speeding tickets his behavior must generate. I admit I’m an old man in a hat … at least a helmet … but I’ll compare my insurance rates to him any day. Passing other bikers going down the hill I give them the low wave, or a peace sign, or even a high five in passing and sharing the joy of the open … and I mean OPEN … road.

I always look out for vehicles with obvious danger signs. Pay particular attention to vehicles with crash damage — they are usually owned by accident-prone drivers. Cars that have missing or malfunctioning turn signals and brake lights, or are obviously un-roadworthy should also be given extra room. Even a really filthy car is a sign that its owner doesn’t like driving. People who don’t like to drive are not good at it.

Continually play “What if?…” Ask yourself what you’d do if the ladder on that painter’s van a hundred yards ahead of you blew off and landed in your lane. Or, what you’d do if that car waiting to enter the road pulled out right in front of you. Decide what evasive action you could take and mentally practice it.

When it is safe to do so (on empty roads or in deserted parking lots) you can even practice real evasive maneuvers and hard stops. Before my first ride I go over to a large church near my house … empty except on Sunday … and practice hard braking as well as slow maneuvering. That brings back the skills that atrophied during the long winter months.

Just before Drake (a little “wide spot” in the road), I spy several cars parked on both sides of the road. I slow for caution and then spot a small herd of Ram Horn Sheep. They were sitting, literally sitting, with all four legs folded up beside the road. I went by too fast to count, but I think there were 10 or 12.

I didn’t stop. I probably should have taken a picture or two, but I didn’t bring any cameras other than my phone and it isn’t really that great at a shot 20 feet away. Besides I would have to stop, take off my gloves, unzip my jacket, etc. Made me think about getting camera that would attach to my handle bars or helmet of eye glasses or something.

Drake was hit hard by the flood, but not as bad as Glen Haven, a smaller town up another canyon that branches from the Big Thompson. It was just about wiped out and municipalities with only a dozen or so residents have a problem paying for flood recovery. The state seems to have caught up on road and bridge repair after nearly two years, but homes and businesses and small bridges to the same may never recover.

From Drake the rest of the way up to Estes I started to see people with fishing poles and waders. Some good fishing in these parts and the locals were out on this weekday avoiding the weekend and tourist crush that will come later. From Drake to Estes the road is dotted with summer residences, tourist cabins, and resorts, mostly empty this early in the year, but a promise of good business to come.

Still the motorcycles outnumbered the fisherman. One advantage of the middle of the week is no big crowds, at least not yet. As I come over the hill into Estes Park I am greeted by the high blue and white mountain ridge to the south of Estes. That’s the Rocky Mountain National Park, a great ride in the summer. Although a loop that starts and ends in Estes is open, the road over Trail Ridge is still locked in snow.

Covering the 48 miles between Estes Park on the park's east side and Grand Lake on the west, Trail Ridge Road more than lives up to its advanced billing. Eleven miles of this high highway travel above treeline, the elevation near 11,500 feet where the park's evergreen forests come to a halt.

As it winds across the tundra's vastness to its high point at 12,183 feet elevation, Trail Ridge Road (U.S. 34) offers thrilling views, wildlife sightings, and spectacular alpine wildflower exhibitions, all from the comfort of a paved road. That little adventure will wait for better weather. For now my destination is at a slightly lower elevation traveling to the East of those big peaks.

I stop in Estes for a drink and to top off the tank. I can finish the ride from here with a full tank.

While maneuvering slowing in the McDonald’s parking lot, I think what I learned about “target fixation” on a bike. When something dangerous happens in front of you, it’s human nature to fixate on that threat. That’s a deadly mistake. After you identify a threat, pick your escape route. Look where you want to go.

It’s too late to teach yourself about target fixation when you’re in a real panic situation. Learn to see escape options, not threats, by playing ‘what if?’ Pick a line, focus on it, and make your motorcycle go there in informal practice sessions while riding. I practice that as I move at super slow speed through the crowded parking lot and make slow speed, 180° turns, always looking where I want to go, not down at my front wheel. It takes some practice and focus.

After a pause that refreshes, take on some liquid refreshment and eliminate … well, you can figure out the rest, I’m ready to get back on the bike.

Soon I’m navigating through Estes Park and heading up Highway 7. Just out of town I start the long and scenic climb up what is called locally the “Peak to Peak Highway," and that is such a perfect name. It begins as CO Highway 7 in Estes Park, passes Lily Mountain and Twin Sisters, then turns south just past Allenspark on CO Highway 72, goes to Nederland where it continues south on CO Highway 119, through Blackhawk, through Clear Creek Canyon, and down to I-70.

This is the main part of my ride on this day and I anxiously navigate the hairpins to reach that wide and fast road at the top of the world. It turns out to be a bit battle damaged with winter potholes abundant in some stretches, but the sun shine and few other vehicles gave me free range to swerve and avoid the worst of the damage.

Soon I am presented with views of Longs Peak from the north, a different perspective than from my home in Longmont. The notch at the summit is clearly visible as is the bridge from the top of slightly less elevated Mount Meeker. A few more miles down the road and I encounter Meeker Park at the very edge of RMNP with it’s close up viewing of the front of the front range masters and Mt. Meeker.

I spot the Enos Mills Cabin Museum, on the Register of Historic Places. The original homestead cabin was built in 1885 by 15-year old Kansan Enos A. Mills, best known as the “Father of Rocky Mountain National Park.” The park was officially established in 1915, due to his determination and here you can see some of his photography, books, as well as exhibits depicting his life. Mills climbed Longs Peak nearly 300 times.

Past Wild Basin Lodge and the trailhead for Longs climbers … like rush hour in the summer, and you often have to wait at the narrow spots for a dozen descenders to go by … or vice-versa.

Continuing the awesome views I soon arrive at St. Catherine’s Chapel, Camp St. Malo. This magnificent stone chapel is right beside the road and a popular place for shutterbugs. There is a convention center and retreat for those wishing to soak up the peace and tranquility of this mountain setting. But I have more to see and miles to go before I sleep, so I’m quickly off down the road.

Although the traffic isn’t heavy, I consider safety in congested areas. Motorcycles are vulnerable because they are small, but that size can be turned into an advantage. Never just float along in the middle of your lane in traffic. Instead, position yourself in your lane so that you can see around vehicles in front of you. I ride just next to the yellow line. Keeping off the dirty/oily part in the middle of the lane and avoiding any sand or trash along the edge of the road. I keep an eagle eye on approaching cars. I’m most visible in this location, but I watch for anyone drifting across the center line.

Like most bikers, I drive 100x (or more) miles than I ride. So I’m always thinking, in a panic situation, I may tend to act as if I’m in a car, not on a bike. For example, if traffic comes to an unexpected halt on a multi-lane highway, you should aim for the gap between lanes for extra stopping space. Your car can’t fit through there, but your bike easily can. A spring time ride is a good time to refresh those thoughts, even if there is nowhere to practice. Soon I'll be in Boulder on a busy street and opportunities to walk my talk (or thoughts) will likely occur.

I soon reach the mountain community of Allenspark. We had a cabin in the woods in Allenspark back when my youngest son Mark was just learning to walk. I was still in college at the time and was during a week long stay at the cabin that I wrote “Continuing Education as a Method of Preventing Engineering Obsolescence.” That 15 page paper not only got me graduated, but was published later when I was working for IBM Technical Education as a guide for the business. I wrote that paper using my IBM Selectric Typewriter and a ream of “erasable bond” paper. Those were pre-computer word processor days back in the seventies.

Similar memories rushed out of my head such as the weekend we spent in the trailer on St. Mary's lake. While Mike (Mark wasn't even born yet) and Linda fished, I crammed physics from two thick "Physics Problem Solvers" to rescue a 'A' from a 'B' average on my final exam. (It worked. Kept that 4.0 average.)

It is quite a bit cooler here in the mountains and at these elevation. As I turn onto CO 72 I’m glad for my leather jacket. It is very warm and besides the protection of thick cow-skin, there are plastic armor pieces at critical places such as shoulders, elbows, and even a strip down my backbone. I pass a little turn-off that brings back memories of before I was married and I would take my yellow van up a little narrow trail a mile or so into the forest to camp. My friends, the brothers Jeff and William (he went by “Bill” back then), and another friend of mine named Dan camped up that little trail all weekend and only saw one other vehicle, a jeep, traveling past.

Now there is a small station where you register to go up there, and I doubt you are allowed to park and camp … probably wasn’t supposed to back then either, but it was a different time, and I could sleep in the back of a van. Now I prefer warm motel rooms and a mattress. A lot has changed, both to the country and to yours truly.

Braking: If you only — or even mainly ! — use your rear brake, you need to stop riding on the street right now and go get more advanced training. In a panic stop, all motorcycles derive the vast majority of their stopping power from the front brake. Learn to trust your front brake, even if it’s raining or you need to slow down in mid corner. Practice applying your brakes and adjusting your cornering line in the middle of turns. You never need to grab a big handful of brakes on a modern motorcycle — two fingers will usually suffice. Get in the habit of riding with your index finger on the front brake lever at all times; you don’t need your whole right hand to twist the throttle.

I loop past Peaceful Valley, home to a large campground as well as a dude ranch famous for weddings and head up a long climb. The air is cooled by the three foot snow drifts right beside the road that chill the air like ice cubes in a tall drink. I pass the town of Ward and take a detour climbing up to Brainard Lake another favorite camping site, although that was during the time I had a trailer with bed and furnace.

Eventually I pass the turn off to Caribou Ranch which was a recording studio built by producer James William Guercio in 1972 in a converted barn on ranch property near Nederland, Colorado, on the road that leads to the ghost town of Caribou. The studio was in operation until it was damaged in a fire in March 1985. I’ve got some good memories of Caribou, both of my visits and of the wonderful mountain music recorded at that studio including the hit "Rock & Roll, Hoochie Koo.” Elton John; Chicago; Earth, Wind and Fire; Amy Grant; Dan Fogelburg. Many a famous rocker and hanger-on hung out there. Over a hundred and fifty famous musicians and bands recorded and stayed right here in these mountains. Deep Purple; Frank Zappa; Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; John Denver; John Lennon; Kris Kristofferson; Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; Phil Collins; Rod Stewart; Steely Dan; Stevie Nicks; U2; and Waylon Jennings … I'm running out of breathe. You'll have to look up the rest.

Even though these twisty roads can force you into an unexpected sharp turn, NEVER RUN WIDE! The most common type of single-vehicle motorcycle accident happens when a rider feels that he has entered a turn too fast and chooses to run off the outside of the bend. Never, ever do this!! In the vast majority of such crashes, the rider could have made the bend with ease; he merely lacked the confidence to do so.

On any modern sport bike, the limit of cornering adhesion is well past the point where your knee is touching the pavement. Even on cruisers and touring bikes, you can lean past the point where things are starting to drag.

If you find yourself entering a corner too fast, do not look at the edge of the road. Remember, you tend to go where you look. Gently apply the brakes to scrub off as much speed as possible. Look towards a safe exit line. Counter steer and lean off the inside of your bike. (Counter steer means if you are turning right, push the bars a bit to the left. This will force the bike deeper into the right turn.)

Lean the bike as far as you need to. In a worst-case scenario, it is almost always safer to suffer a low-side crash because you leaned too far than it is to ride off the road on your wheels and crash in the ditch.

Now down the short hill into Nederland, home of the famous dead guy. Grandpa Bredo is soon to be 109 years old. For the last years, he’s taken up residence in a Tuff Shed in the hills above Nederland, Colorado, where he remains very, very, very cold. More specifically, Grandpa is frozen in a state of suspended animation, awaiting the big thaw. The one that will bring him back to life.

Being a small town filled with aging (and a few young) hippies, naturally they take advantage of this situation with “Frozen Dead Guy Days,” an annual festival to celebrate life … and death … and in-between states. Frozen Dead Guy Days is a pretty off-the-wall festival.

This year FDGD was March 14-16, so I had missed it. For a town like Nederland that thrives on the colorful, the offbeat, and the weird, Frozen Dead Guy Days is a fitting way to end the short days of winter and head into the melting snows of spring. Trygve Bauge, Bredo’s Norwegian grandson calls it “Cryonics’ first Mardi Gras.”

It was a good time and place for a stop and some light lunch. A local hippie coffee shop offered up warm caffeine and a nice bagel. Just as I started to sup, in walked a van load of tourists. “What a quaint town you have,” commented a middle-aged lady as the small crowd perused the menu. “What do you recommend,” a gentleman asked me. “I don’t know. I’m a tourist too,” was my reply. I went outside to sit in the sun and enjoy the peace and quiet. Darned tourists … they ruin everything. Did I say that? Or was it the local next to me as he looked in my direction.

Soon a couple arrived on their Gold Wing and full coverage helmets. As I got on my bike they said "hi" and asked how I was doing. “Very well,” I replied, “It’s just good to be alive.” “Amen” the lady replied. It was a Tuesday, and early in the year, Nederland will soon be much more crowded.

Even though there are no stop lights in Nederland (although there is a big traffic circle), riding in town reminded me to never just GO on green. If you’re waiting at a red light, don’t take off like a rocket the instant it turns green. American drivers all seem to think that yellow lights mean “floor it.” With that as the prevailing attitude, many drivers are effectively timing the red light, expecting to clear the intersection before cars can enter it on a fresh green light.

Motorcycles can easily accelerate much faster than cars, but car drivers don’t realize that. They may well be thinking, “I can get through before the traffic starting off can cross my path.” If you prove them wrong, the fact that you had the right of way will be a small consolation indeed. In general, assume that car drivers have underestimated your speed, because they often have. Don’t be the first one to the scene of the accident.

It was time for me to continue down the road. So far I had driven over fairly familiar roads. Now I would continue south on a much less frequently traveled path in my forty years in Colorado. Past the road up to Eldora Mountain Resort, a ski resort we frequented often in earlier times, I climbed up toward Rollinsville on the flank of a hill above South Boulder Creek along State Highway 119 between Nederland and Black Hawk. It consists of a small cluster of residences and several businesses at the terminus of the road leading westward up to Rollins Pass at the summit of the Front Range. The population as of the 2010 Census was 181.

Railroad tracks leading through the town show that, instead of gold, this burg was established for the hauling of freight when John Q. A. Rollins, a prominent mining executive in Gilpin County in the 1860s, established the town. From there it is a short ride down to Black Hawk and Central City. Two towns that were central to the gold business, and continue in that endeavor, although now they are digging the gold out of tourist’s and local’s pockets as two of the three Colorado towns that have legalized gambling.

Seems odd that the gambling was sold to the populace as a way to save the historic towns from becoming ghost properties, and now the historic towns hardly show amongst the big casinos and gambling halls. The road widens to four lanes to keep the money trucking up to the mountains and take the losers back to city life.

The ride had given me the wonderful high feeling and satisfaction that is never quite understood by our friends in the metal cages. I feel very relaxed yet vigilant in a zen sort of way. As much as I love and recommend motorcycling as a great adventure and way of life, there is a caution in our rushing world.

Although riding helps a lot of us to keep our sanity, don’t storm out of the house after a fight with your spouse and get on your motorcycle to clear your head. Riding while angry or distracted is as dangerous as riding drunk or stoned. Your goal is a state of relaxed awareness. Don’t ride to find that mental state; find it, then ride. In fact, I don’t recommend being on the road on a bike, in a car, or driving a semi if you just had a fight with wife or friend. Under those circumstances I recommend a walk or a brisk run. Biking is for enjoyment and enlightenment, but the mind must be ready. I told you it was like zen.

I rapidly approach the hustle of Interstate 70, but escape by turning east onto highway six on into Golden. Golden, Colorado. Nearly became the capital of the state since it was closer to the gold fields than Denver. Now it's known as the home of Coors Beer and the Colorado School of Mines.

From Golden I take CO 93 and join the rush hour commuters streaming back North. I drive through Boulder on Broadway, past the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology — previously the Bureau of Standards), the University of Colorado, Pearl Street Mall, and out north passed the biggest strip club in Boulder. From there it is on US 36 down the foothills to Lyons and then CO 66 home.

About 6 hours from my departure I return to my origin with a smile on my face and some memories to transcribe. Linda looks up from her reading. “Did you have a good time?” she asks. The smile on my face is enough of an answer. I take her into my arms. My lips touch hers … sorry … getting a little too “adult” for my audience. Let’s just say I told her I did, indeed, have a good time. That should preserve the “G” rating of my blog.

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