Sunday, January 12, 2014

Tips for Triple-D First Timers

A riding buddy and his riding buddies are going to take on the Triple-D for the first time this year. I wrote up the following Tip sheet for them. Then I thought, maybe some other people could use this too. So I thought I'd post it here.

Special thanks to Michael "Sconnyboy" for editing and adding some additional notes, especially about the course.

The old-school neutral roll out, circa 2010.

The Course:

  • The start is a short neutral roll-out. If you want to be competitive, better get to the front early on. If you just want to ride it, I’d still recommend getting at least to the middle, some of the folks in the back just mosey along. (I think the course may have changed for 2014. Lance’s stated goal was to start right from the hotel parking lot, so the rollout may have been eliminated. -ML) 
  • Once we get to the official starting point all hell breaks loose. It narrows down to doubletrack/singletrack very quickly. Riding on snow is hard, people are anxious, people make mistakes. It can result in a serious log jam. Be patient, be prepared to hike-a-bike for a bit.
  • The first few miles are hilly and pass through a variety of conditions on the outskirts of Dubuque. You will have some hike-a-bike sections, some long climbs too, ranging up to 100-300ft of elevation gain. For reference the longest climb at Blue Mounds State Park on Overload (from the bridge up to Ryan Rd.) is about 200ft.
  • The course will be marked with flags and ribbon outbound and with some reflectors nearer the finish. How things are marked is discussed at the pre-race meeting, so be sure to listen for that info. (ML) The route can be hard to follow at times during the first 1/3rd of the course, and the last couple miles, so pay attention. Don’t assume that the tire tracks in front of you went the right way. (FH)
  • Once you get out of town a bit you have a few more climbs on snowmobile trails and “B-Roads”. Some of these can be icy, so keep your eyes peeled. There is one downhill in particular 11-12 miles in that everyone talks about, its after a long stretch of pavement pounding on Humke Rd., that b-road downhill is long, and can be really tricky. Take your time.
  • Once you’re at the bottom of the Humke Rd. decent, you are through just about all of the really technical and hilly conditions in the course (except for the last climb). You will have another ~1/2 mile of pavement to get to the Heritage Trail (roughly 14 miles in), and then its rail-to-trail from here on. (Humke is fantastic, but got rerouted last year to avoid the pavement and B road portions because it was so icy. We rode next to Old Highway, Sundown and Potter Hill roads to avoid it and picked up Heritage at the bottom of Potter Hill. -ML)
  • The trail conditions on that first 1/2 mile or so of the Heritage Trail will give you a good idea of your odds of finishing and maybe your finishing time, based on your average speed on this stretch since the conditions on most of the trail are going to be like this. Time for the mental math. (Also note that you may want to air up your tires a bit at this point, since it’s mostly cruising from here to Dyersville and back to Sageville/Hwy 52.- ML) (Unless the snow groomer comes by to soften up the trail / destroy’s your soul. -FH)
  • The next couple miles of the Heritage Trail aren’t too bad, typically. Slight up, but you’re usually out of the wind since your down in the stream valley.
  • This slight grade (~350 ft gained over ~10 miles) is largely imperceptible, but it will make you “feel slow”. Don’t let it discourage you too much on the way outbound, it will be downhill on the way back.
  • You will emerge from the stream valley into the uplands after passing under Holy Cross Road. (The box culvert under the road can be icy and dark, so watch it –ML) If you are out of food or water, it is 1 mile south to the town of Farley where there is a convenience store.
  • Its less than 5 miles from this point to the turn around in Dyersville. This stretch is fairly flat, out in the open and very exposed to the winds. This can be the hardest or the easiest stretch of the race depending on conditions. There can be bare crushed limestone, slick ice, big drifts… probably all three in various proportions. Usually you have to contend with strong, cold winds one way or the other. Put your head down and push through.
  • When they say look for the tank, they mean a real freaking army tank! This should be (roughly) the 30 mile mark). Maybe a mile from here to the turn-around.
  • Follow directions carefully in Dyersville, it can be a little confusing the first time. (Left at the two huge grain bins, then right after the tracks. Chad’s Pizza is just across the river –ML)
  • Don’t get too comfortable at the pizza place, you don’t want to let your body temperature drop to much. A short visit is best. On the other hand, you could try putting on a dry base layer and hanging out for a while to refuel with a modest meal.
  • Once you cross Holy Cross Road north of Farley and are back in the valley on the Heritage Trail, you are more-or-less home free… assuming you can keep your energy up and you don’t get too cold. Just get into a rhythm, don’t forget to eat and be ready to put an extra layer on. (Leave something in the tank for the stretch between Sageville and the finish…hard going and hilly. -ML)
  • The bar in Durango can get a little too comfortable. Don’t stay too long if you really intend to finish. I like to go just in and out (you have to check in), but certainly don’t spend more than 10 minutes in there.
  • (Michael) From Durango, it’s a couple of miles to the Heritage trailhead at Sageville and Rupp Hollow roads. I haven’t been there [since last year], but I think the trail has been finished now to the bridge over Hwy 52. From there, the course passes near the Dubuque Driving Range bar and restaurant, crosses [back over] 52 at a traffic signal and picks up the ATV trail that runs next to the NW Arterial (Hwy 32.) Be ready for more uphill pushing here (300+ ft of elevation gain!). There’s a stretch of unmaintained paved bike path between Kennedy and Plaza…use it wisely, because you’ll soon be back in the ditch. After Middle Rd., you’ll pick up the outbound section of the course and follow it back to the hotel.

Race Conditions:

  • Race conditions vary widely every year, but sub-zero temperatures and deep snow are common. Mentally go through you clothes and gear a head of time to be sure you have what you need for any possible condition.
Psssh. Typical.  The inagural DDD had 2ยบ F temps at the start, 20 mph winds and deep snow.
  • Watch the Triple-D blog or Facebook page in the week leading up to the race to gleam some information about the trail conditions.
  • Watch the weather forecast for Dubuque for the week leading up to the race so you have the best idea of what the weather might be like for the race, and so you’ll know what to pack with you.
  • Assume that it will get substantially colder than the predicted low temperature, because it will. The valley that the Heritage Trail runs through is a low area on the landscape and cold air drains into this valley. Have the closes on hand to handle temperatures 10-15 degrees colder than predicted for Dubuque. I have bailed out twice in this section after getting too cold (FH)


  • Plan on eating 300-350 calories per hour to maintain yourself over the race. Finishing anywhere from 7 hours to 12 hours depending on conditions. You will need 2000-4000 calories over the course of the race. You will need to pack some with you of course, but you can get food at the turn around point, a pizza place in Dyersville, and at the Handlebar in Durango. There is also one convenience store in Dyersville, but remember, this is 35 miles into the course, so figure its 3-6 hours in depending on the conditions.
  • As much as it sucks to bonk in the summer, in the winter its way worse because you will slow down and get really cold. Don’t let it happen.
    Test any food you might want to use during the race by putting it in the feeder for several hours. If its too hard to eat after that, then its not going to work for Triple-D. Some things that do work:
    • energy gel (kept warm close to your body)
    • crunchy granola bars
    • Clif blocks (warm them up in your cheeks)
    • nuts
    • pretzels
    • jerky
    • jelly bean
  • It can be really hard to open food containers while riding in the snow, whether you have thick gloves on or not. Either pre-open most of your food items, or choose things that don’t have difficult to open packaging. Even simple things like granola bar wrappers can be a PIA.
  • Having your water supply freeze is always a major issue. Insulated bike water bottles aren’t going to cut it. Might work OK if its carried right next to the body, kept in an insulated holster or has a hand warmer taped to it. But I often have problems with the valve freezing up.
  • The best bet is a camel bak worn under your jacket. The weak link here is the hose freezing, blow air back through the hose.
  • If your hose freezes anyway, you can bend it, bite it, etc to break up the ice and suck hard to pull warm water through to thaw the ice in the tube. Those hard plastic l-bends in the tubes can be a place where ice builds up and you can’t do anything about it. Just take it off before the ride and put the bite valve directly on the hose.
  • Be sure you have enough water to get you to Dyersville 100oz is probably safe.
  • I’m a big fan of using electrolyte tablets. I try to take 2 an hour, but I sweat a lot. I feel like these keep me feeling fresh for long days on the bike. YMMV.

Body & Gear:

  •  Assuming conditions are good enough for a lot of pedaling, your body can get sore from being in the same position all the time on the Heritage Trail. Be sure you have a comfortable, efficient, kinda-low position you can settle into. Or you may want to find a way to vary your position to keep it fresh.
  • You may want to have your saddle at MTB height for the first ~15 miles of the race, and then raise it to road height for the Heritage Trail.
    It can really help out if you’re getting sore to stop and stretch a bit. Keep them short though so you don’t cool down too much.
  • Along these lines, it doesn’t hurt to get off the bike and walk or jog next to it for a while. This uses different muscles. A good strategy for warming up cold toes too.
    Always pack some extra clothes with you. You will be out there until after dark, and the temperatures WILL DROP. This will be compounded by the fact that you will be riding through a deep valley on the way back and cold air settles.
  • I like to carry a spare hat, balaclava, wind breaker, liner gloves, and core layer. Try to mix and match how thick/warm these things are compared to what you are wearing. For example, if you start warming-up mid day you can take off your medium weight hat and put on a light weight one. Then if it gets cold later, put on the balaclava and the light hat… if it gets even colder you have the medium weight hat in reserve.
Heritage Trail, ice canyon. Gets cold.
  • Toe warmers and hand warmers can save your butt. Have at least one package of each, even if you don’t think its going to get that cold. If you have porgies you can just leave the hand warmers loose in them to warm up the whole poagie…. might need two per side though.
  • Poagies can be a good place to store food. Keeps it a little warmer, and its right at your finger tips.
  • I like to run just a very small (3AAA battery) headlamp velcro-ed to my helmet. I usually just run it on low, the snow reflects a lot of light, so this is all I need on the Heritage Trail. Its small and compact and easy to pack. And it allows you to be able to see where you are looking, such as into your bag to get more food/clothes out. Michael uses two brighter lights mounted just above his wheel. Pick your poison.
  • Nipple chaffing is a likely situation. Pack 2 large band-aids in your kit. Apply them as soon as you start to feel chafing… or else.
  • Along those lines, shammy cream is your friend. My favorite is Bag Balm… it can last the whole ride.
  • As always, give your bike a thorough once-over 2-4 days before the race. Give the drive train a very thoroughly cleaning and re-lubing, with a lubricant that you think will be able to withstand the conditions for the extent of the race. I like Pedro’s Syn-Lube. Usually a wet lube is a good choice, but pick one that does not get thick at cold temperatures. Clean the bike thoroughly and look for anything that’s not as it should. Don’t worry too much about minor wear issues (its better to avoid making any substantial changes to your bike right before the race if you can) but if you find any serious problems you can’t fix, run into the shop screaming and panicking: “I have a huge race on Sunday! HELP!”

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Militant Badger Ride 2013

Some Background

I haven't posted to this blog much lately, mostly because I haven't been doing that much riding. I participated in the 60 mile portion of the Dairy Rubaix back in April.

The Dairy Rubaix was a good time, but a false start to my season.

The following weekend I did the half-marathon event at the Illinois Marathon, and managed to finish in less than 2 hours. But then things got busy at Good Oak, and I honestly don't think I did a ride more than 10 miles for the next 2 months. If I did, it was going out and doing site visits for work. I lost a lot of fitness, probably less riding fit than I've been in 10 or 15 years. On my first 'real ride' in months back in late June my legs were pretty much blown after just 25 miles of riding. And I continued to put on weight, topping out heavier than I've ever been at over 180 pounds.

I did finally get back on the bike, but I didn't come roaring back like I had hoped. I was still busy with work even through our typical July-August slow spell. And then some good news and big changes in our life, my wife gave birth to our daughter Violet in late July.

Despite all these aspects of what I'm going to call a well-rounded life, I have been able to get a moderate amount of riding in over the past 3 months. I've had a few hard rides, my mountain bike has gotten dirty, a pair of metric-centuries, and even a full century, where I had a great time riding with some Illini Bicycle Racing Club alumni, my riding buds from college, at the Pumpkin Pie Century down in Ottawa. That ride ended up being a pretty big challenge for me.
Good times.

I give all this history to give some frame of reference for where I was physically when I was coming at this event. While not completely out of shape, I am by no means in peak condition or even 80% or 90% which is where I usually am when I am fit for racing.

I also was feeling a little low on energy all week leading up to the ride. I get  this condition I call "Random Fatigue Syndrome" which happens on random days, at random times (usually during the afternoon) and at random levels of intensity... and despite many trips to the doctor over the years, I've never been diagnosed with anything. Usually it happens in periods though where it will pop up regularly for a week or three, and having felt crummy all week I feared it would effect me on Saturday. Then again, with a business to run and a baby to help take care of, I could have just been tired... its hard to tell the difference anymore.

I debated whether to do the ride at all. If I wasn't feeling well, would it be worth it? I could get a lot of work done with a whole Saturday's worth of time available to me. But in the end, I decided to head out with the ride and at least ride to Monroe, and if I wasn't feeling well, turn around and get a solid 80 miles in before lunch.

Getting Ready to Ride

The Militant Badger is a 145 mile loop ride largely on rail-to-trails in southwest Wisconsin. With the additional distance from my house to the starting point, it was going to be 150 miles for me. The ride starts by heading south out of Madison on the Badger State Trail. At Monroe it heads northwest on the Cheese Country Trail to Mineral Point. From there it was less than 10 miles of bike routes and bike paths to Dodgeville where we would pick up the Military Ridge Trail and head back to Madison. There are grades along these rail to trails, but the only real climbing was between Mineral Point and Dodgeville, and it was steep, but not too long. This is basically the BALLS ride in reverse, so some call the Militant Badger the SLLAB ride. The main difference is that BALLS is a two day event, we were going to try to travel the same distance in just 1 day.... I told Carol to be ready to pick me up in Dodgeville, just in case.

The weather forecast was not looking great. Though it wasn't too clear, about when or how, it was apparent it was going to rain on the Militant Badger. As such I assumed it would pour for hours, so I dug out all my rain gear and stuck it in a big Revelate Designs seat bag. I pulled a rear fender and a mud board for my downtube out of my parts bin. When I was all done setting things up on Friday night, my bike was pretty well loaded.

I got up at 5am, did my usual morning pre-ride fiddling and headed out the door. It was brisk at right around 32 degrees. I think I chose my clothing well, I wanted my main outfit to be comfortable in the 45-50 degree range where it would be most of the day,  but with some extra insulation for the morning that would be tolerable for a slow roll out at around freezing.

I arrived at race headquarters on Jennifer St. just in time to get into the group photo. After a little more milling around we all hit the road. It seemed to me there were about 15 riders in all, but I knew at least two people, and perhaps more, were planning on turning around in Monroe, so either way I went I would have company. We rolled out of town at a casual pace for the paved section of the Badger Trail. I was mostly quietly thinking about what was ahead of me and listening in on conversations, but I chatted for a while with a guy named Kieth.

The Badger Trail

At the old trailhead on Purcell Road where the trail turns from asphalt to crushed limestone, I initiated a pee break and pretty much everyone stopped. From here the group splintered immediately, I saw a few people down the trail in front of me so I rolled up behind them and we had a small peleton of 4. This included my former neighbor Tyler and a couple guys I didn't know, one on a Trek 29er, the other on a touring bike. Apparently I was riding with the lead group here!

Tyler stopped to pee at some point and so did the Trek 29er guy. It was just me and the touring bike roadie dude through the the tunnel on the Badger trail. A few miles later the Trek 29er dude caught back up to us, but Tyler did not. We started pace-lining a little bit and I learned that if you draft a mountain bike you will get dirt thrown up in your face.

Now technically, the Militant Badger is a race. I had planned all along on just trying to finish. But I was feeling good and was riding in the lead group of three riders. As a long-time racer, I couldn't help but think that, being up in the lead group at the moment, maybe I should try to race this to win. I had a lot more food and water with me than these guys did, so I could just keep riding when these guys stopped to refuel somewhere and then put the hammer down to make sure they didn't see me again.... I had to work hard to quell these thoughts. They were optimistic, perhaps even delusional. And I was NOT here to race. Couldn't help thinking them though.

About 8 miles of out Monroe I noticed my bike was bobbing... apparently my front tire had lost some air. I stopped to check it, but being a tubeless set-up it had sealed itself and just needed a little inflating. As the other two rode away my delusions of victory rolled away with them. Tyler passed me while I was filling it, we chatted a bit as he rolled on.

Another pair of riders rolled up as I was getting back on the trail, including Keith and an older gentleman who's name I never caught, he was on a Brown Salsa MTB with S&S couplers. We rode together into Monroe in an informal paceline. Most of the way Tyler was just ahead of us. Tyler is a strong rider for sure, but he doesn't have enough road riding experience to know it saves a lot of energy to ride in a group rather than solo.

As we rolled into Monroe Keith and I decided to head to the QuickTrip visible from the trail to resupply. I stripped off my wool jersey mid-layer and liner gloves when we stopped. Before we could even get in the store Richard, the race organizer, rolled up to QuickTrip as well. A full camelbak and a couple doughnuts later we were back on the road, now a group of 3.

The Cheese Country Trail

In less than a mile we took our turn and got to the trailhead for the Cheese Country Trail. This trail was the real wildcard of the ride. Reports I had heard ranged from it being extremely rough, loose, sandy, muddy... to not that bad really. During the BALLS ride people had ridden it when it was flooded, or super soft with freshly churned up soft gravel and so forth. On Saturday, it wasn't too bad overall. The trail's condition did very a lot over the 44 or so miles. Some stretches were smoother than pavement. Others were deep, soft gravel with washboards. The surfaced ranged from dirt, to crushed limestone, to gravel, to pavement to some black stuff that was maybe crushed shale? The conditions varied over remarkably short distances so that you might be cruising along easily for just a few seconds and then have to grab on to your bars tight and carefully maneuver through a soft section. But overall by bike was set up pretty well for it with my 42c Continental Cyclocross Speed tires providing enough cushion and float and just enough treads on the side of these semi-slicks to keep me in control.

Honestly most of the stretch is a blur. At one point we caught a rider named Jason. Jason was on the exact same bike that I use for commuting an early 90's Ross Mt. Hood. Mostly in mint condition too! He said he got it for $30 at St. Vinnies, quite a find. Jason was setting a slower, but steadier pace than us so he didn't ride with us long, but passed us several times when we would take short breaks to pee or get food or whatnot, so we did a real tortoise and hare thing with him.

As we approached Darlington we saw another rider ahead and we slowly started to make ground on him. Turns out it was Tyler. The 4 of us formed up for a group the last couple miles into Darlington where we all stopped at Casey's General Store to refuel. Cheese-Its and chocolate milk. Good stuff.

Tyler left a bit quicker than Richard, Keith an I did, so we ended up with a 3-person paceline for the next several miles as the trail turned north and we were presented with a variety of winds from cross to head to tail as the trail twisted around a bit. As we apprached Mineral Point we could again see Tyler off in the distance. I think Richard wanted to catch him... but I wasn't feeling well so I started falling behind.

The the trail started to get a bit rough. Freshly graded coarse gravel was a sort of grand-finale to a trail that just started eating away at you after a while and got really frustrating. Despite this, this are just south of Mineral Point was the most beautiful part of the ride. A hillsides with degraded prairie and pasture, oak woodland that gave you some sense of what the entire landscape once looked like, and appeared entirely restorable to me... I'd love to set up my dream of the Good Oak Land Trust here. So I'd like to say that my slower speed was partially because I was enjoying the scenery, but I was probably just being slow. We spread out a bit, Kieth dropped back and we ended up riding together while Richard caught Tyler and they were about 100 yards ahead of us as we rolled into the historic district of Mineral Point... and finally off the Cheese Country Trail... good riddance!

After a little route-finding Kyle and I started up the one real climb in the ride, about 300 ft of elevation gain from when we entered Mineral Point up to the Military Ridge.  It was a challenge with 90 miles on our legs already, but it felt good to stand up and stretch the legs a bit on the climb. By the time we got to the top Tyler and Richard were not that far ahead of us. Once we were on the road and bike path along the ridge top, with a nice tail wind behind us, Keith and I felt confidence we could bridge the gap and catch up to Tyler and Richard, which we did in just a mile or two. The 4 of us rode into Dodgeville together with a great tailwind in generally high spirits... somewhere in here we hit the 100 mile mark for the day, 50 miles from home.

The Military Ridge Trail

I had planned all along to stop in Dodgeville for a major refuel all along. My concept was to get rested and fueled up, feeling good, and then knocking back 50 miles of familiar trail wouldn't be that hard. Plus I was completely out of water, and my digestive system was clearly starting to get angry at me, which I know from Leadville a few years ago can really devastate my day. With the turn of the route, and the wind now blowing strongly in our favor the Richard, Tyler and Kyle wanted to keep riding, so I told bid them farewell, and I stopped at the Subway right across from the terminus of the Military Ridge Trail.

So far that day the weather had been great really. But a storm was rolling in, and in the time it took me to add 10 psi to my tires it had gone from great riding weather to a blowing rain storm. My bike was in a dry spot, so I went into the nice warm Subway to have a relaxing lunch. Perfect timing.

I tried to relax at lunch and sit upright as much as possible to let my guts do their job. It was still raining when I finished my sandwich, so I stretched for a bit, dropped a duce (a critical display that my digestive system was still functioning well) and after 45 minutes was ready to ride again. Felt great! The rain was petering out, a rainbow shown the way home. I decided to put on my new rain jacket, just in case the rain flared up again, but really, that perfectly timed stop prevented me from getting any more than a light spritz on me all day.

After a mile or two I caught up to Jason who was pulling off his rain gear and getting back on the trail. We rode together and chatted for 8 miles or so. He was still keeping his steady pace, and as I started speeding up again after digesting my lunch we parted ways. For the next 30 miles or so I just cruised easily through Ridgeway, Barneveld, Blue Mound, Mount Horeb, and then downhill to the Sugar River Wetland and into Verona. A few quick stops to pee and add a layer, but otherwise I just kept riding the whole way, and felt pretty good the whole time. For a while I was searching for my former riding partners ahead of me, but after a while there was enough other trail traffic that I decided not to waste my mental energy on it.

I rolled into Madison while there was still daylight, heck, the sun was even coming out again. I was both happy to be going through the Allied Drive neighborhood when it was safely light out, and a little disappointing I didn't get to use my nice headlight that had been on my bike all day very much. As I rode over the SW Bikepath's overpass over the Beltline I caught up to our neighbors and fellow mountain bikers Ben and Andrea who were out for a casual day excursion on the Badger Trail. We rode through town together on the Capitol City Trail and caught up a little, parting ways on Jennifer St. where I headed back to race HQ to sign in.

I received a warm welcome at Richard's house, he, Keith and Tyler were all there eating pizza and drinking beer, apparently having come in 30-40 minutes before me, or as they put it, I was about a sandwich behind them. I had a good time discussing the day's events and various other tales with them, before Tyler and I headed out and rode together home.

All in all, I felt remarkably good for having covered 150 miles. Despite the slower surface that limestone provides, I think the overall flatness of this route was key to me being able to complete this ride when I was most certainly not in peak condition. That and careful pacing, listening to my body and just having the experience of doing a lot of long rides like this, my bike was set up well and I had everything I needed.

Hopefully this is the first step among many for me to rebuild my fitness and loose some weight so I can be competitive in the Triple-D this year. I hope to do a couple cyclocross races yet this fall, but my sights are really all set on the Triple-D this year... If I can get fit, I think I can be a contender there.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Road Back to Jinotepe, and home

By Wednesday the 20th, it was finally time to leave Ometepe, and start the process of heading home. Valerie and I were both thoroughly sore and tired from our hike, we could hardly walk, especially up or down hill/stairs. I think I was kind of tired from having a cold too. We took our time with breakfast and utilizing the internet in the morning (I wrote a whole blog post) and then went to pack our gear up. I was quite tired and slow and for once Valerie was ready to go before me by a long shot.

We kept a decent pace as we rode back to the port town of Moyogalpa, and saw some interesting things along the way:

 This horse refused to leave the center of the road.

This bus finally pursueded the horse to move out of the way. I include this photo here to give you an example of the colorful paint jobs on the buses in Nicaragua.

 A woman and her daughter hang out in front of a small roadside shop. I'm not sure if they were waiting for it to open, or waiting to open it.

 Entering Moyogalpa, the school kids appear to be on lunch break.

 We worked our way through Moyogalpa down to the small harbor area. We found a little bite to eat at a streetside restaurant and turned around to meet this guy:

 Loic Munardo is riding his bike around the world. He started in France, then into Germany, Switzerland... well, check out his top tube for the whole list:

For those of you not familiar with flags, the highlights include The Balkins, Turkey, Iran, India, Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, then into British Colombia, down the US west coast, Baja Mexico, and on down to where we met him in Nicaragua, after he took a day to tour on Ometepe. He is going to continue his journey through central America, down the spine of South America, possibly as far as Tierra del Fuego. Then He's going to hop a plane to Africa and ride north, back to France. He is about half-way through his 3-year journey now. I wish him luck on the remainder of his journey.

We spent the whole ferry ride, about an hour, talking with Loic about his trip. He had done the whole trip on the same tires until just a few days earlier when a sharp piece of metal shredded his rear tire. Fortunately he is running 26" wheels, and tires of this size are commonplace in central America (700c, not so much). He said that most of his XT equipped Surly Long Haul Trucker was working flawlessly, except for his crankset with the external bottom bracket that wears out in just 5,000-10,000 miles. He also suggested that an 8-speed drivetrains would have been better for global touring since 7/8 speed drive trains are common around the world, even in developing nations, where as 9/10/11 speed stuff (he was running 9-speed) is only available in the most developed locations.

Loic said that the people of Turkey and Iran were the friendliest. Tibet was the most beautiful place he visited (though he had to do it on the low-down since its nearly impossible for foreign visitors to get approval to travel there). He said that Southeast Asia was easy to travel through, friendly people, and fairly inexpensive too. He also said that the Baja peninsula was a great ride, which was of particular interest to me since this is one I've wanted to do for a while. Here's his blog, if you want to read about his trip. Its all in French, I'm still trying to figure out if there is a way to translate web pages as a whole.

Once off the ferry we parted ways with Loic, and Valerie and I headed into the little Italian restaurant just outside the dock area for more lunch. We fueled up properly with food and water, and then had to wait a bit for some rain to pass over. It was about 2pm, it gets dark around 6pm, and we had about 55 miles to ride, including 2000 ft uphill. We headed out as soon as the rain stopped, and fortunately had a cross/tailwind most of the way, so we made good progress down the Pan-American Highway.

Sugar cane.

For some reason, I waited until my last full day in Nicaragua to take a picture of the abundant roadside fruit stands. These are well stocked, mostly with melons, but also papaya, mango and tangerines.

I just liked the look of this bizarre billboard. I'm still not sure what they're selling. Nuts?

It was well into dusk when we rolled into Jinotepe. With no lights on our bikes, this got a little sketchy, but then again, everybody else was traveling in a sketchy manner too. After a quick pass through the park on a final desperate search for sloths (there are supposed to be a couple 'pet' sloths in the trees in the town park), but finding none, we headed back to Cesar's house.

Cesar as it turns out was worried about our safety, and pretty upset with us, in particular, me. He hadn't gotten most of the messages and phone rings I had sent him while we were out riding around the past couple of days. And truthfully, I probably should have called him at some point in the afternoon to let him know exactly what time we thought we would be back. Sorry Cesar.

I was tired and hungry, but it was getting close to 7pm, and I had to be up at 4:30 for my flight. So I got clean and started taking apart my bike and packing up my gear. Valerie had some ready-to-eat camp food which came in very handy since most restaurants were closed by the time we finally got out around 8:30. Cold lentils really hit the spot.

I was about ready for bed around 10pm which is about when Cesar came back in a good mood from an evening business meeting. We ended up staying up until midnight talking and trading stories.


I didn't sleep well that night, and basically woke up around 3:30 and couldn't get back to sleep. A cab picked me up from Cesar's place at 4:30 to take me to the airport. The cab ride was a little nuts with the cabbie blowing red lights and doing some risky passes, but overall uneventful, and I kept myself occupied writing a blog post.

I spent most of the last of my Cordobas on tipping the guys who brought my bags into the airport for me (unsolicited of course) and breakfast at the airport. There were a few Americans who had participated in the Fuego y Agua ultramarathon, so I chatted with them for a while. One guy was in a wheel chair due to a severely infected foot. Owch.

I bought some fine Nicaraguan chocolate in the airport, Cesar said it was the best place to get it. This chocolate is rich and flavorful, it tastes 'fresh' compared to the highly processed stuff we get in the US, but I will say it is a bit harsh, so much so that I prefer the milk chocolate to the dark chocolate (and I am usually a dark chocolate fiend).

My first flight brought me over Cuba and the Florida keys.

Then a 3.5 hour layover in Miami gave me plenty of time to get through customs, baggage checking, back through the security gate and into the terminal where I had a surprisingly good lunch at a sushi place there. But I almost missed my flight because my phone did not automatically update to local time as I had expected it to, they almost gave away my seat!

I was pretty exhausted by 4:30 when we landed in O'Hare. I was feeling quite zombie-like until I got something for dinner. But no matter how hard I tried I just couldn't sleep in the airports or on any of the planes.

The flight on the small jet from Chicago to Madison was nerve wracking for me since there was a bit of a storm blowing in. I was pretty freaked out on the landing with snow in the air and a cross wind on the runway. I really only like to fly on days with blue skies and dry runways. Hey, when I was a kid I was afraid to fly at all.

Carol picked me up at the airport around quarter to eleven, and we drove home. It was great to see her again, but we were both too tired to do much celebrating. As exhausted as I was, its kind of hard to unwind after 19 hours of travel, and I didn't get to sleep until midnight.

And that was it for this adventure. I was kind of hoping winter would be on its way out when I got back from this trip, but I have not been so lucky. So far I have had to shovel the driveway 3 times in less than a week... and I'll be doing it for a second time today this afternoon. Why do I live in Wisconsin again?

I plan on writing a few other blog posts about the country, flora, fauna that kind of thing over the next few days. I saw a lot and learned a lot on this trip, and I would like to share.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Climbing a Volcano: its harder than you'd think

For our second day on Ometepe, we wanted to hike to the top of Volcan Maderas, the dormant, southern-most volcano on this island. But it almost didn't happen.

As seems to be customary on this trip, I work up early, this time not due to a rooster (managed to sleep through the rooster this time), but dogs fighting. I finally gave up on sleep and got up to pee around 5:30. The constant and strong wind over Lake Nicaragua slammed the door to my room behind me, locking me out. After I did my business I went by the restaurant/outdoor hotel lobby and explained my situation to the day manager (who fortunately speaks fairly good English). They were fresh out of spare keys for my room, so he grabbed a worker and came over to get me back into my room.

They basically broke back into my room using a machete. They use machetes for everything in Nicaragua. They are the do-it-all tool for farming, for everything from cutting down trees, to clearing ground layer vegetation, harvesting fruit, even testing soil conditions. I have seen a guy on the side of the road fixing a motorcycle with a machete, and in this case it apparently makes a great tool to pry open a window frame.

As the work was commencing I discussed with the manager how we wanted to hike up to the top of Maderas that day. He ask if we had a guide.  A guide is mandatory due to safety, and cause, you know they, understandably, want to suck money out of tourists. Cesar had explained it as a courtesy since they didn't want any more tourists dying on the mountains (lost hikers had died on both Conception and Maderas on Ometepe in the past decade). Anyway, I was under the impression you just connect with one at the trail head. This was not the case. As it turns out the worker there tearing into my hotel room was also a guide. So I got damned lucky that I got locked out of my room, otherwise we may have found out too late that we didn't have the guide we needed, and there would be no volcano hike for us. Our guides name was Roberto... It sounded strange to me the way he said it at first, it took me a while to figure out that it was just the hard-core Spanish pronunciation, not the anglicized version we are used to hearing in the US, his name is pronounced "Rrrow-vuerto".

I'm sure this was fortuitous for Roberto as well. We payed him $25 to be our guide for the day, I suspect this is 2-3 times what he gets payed for a day of work around the hotel/hostel.

We finally got to hiking around 8 or 8:30. The first thing he showed us was an boulder carved with an ancient petroglyph. I think Roberto told us that it was some kind of ancient calender, if I understood him correctly, but I couldn't see how it was divided up, it wasn't obvious a lunar or solar calendar.

We paid our ~$1.20 to enter the park that is the upper slopes of the mountain, and started hiking up. I took quite a few photos, but I will restrict the ones in this blog to those that give you an idea of what the hike was like. I will spare you the numerous plant photos, so you won't have to look at the super bright blue, and hairy, berries, the textured leaves folded like a Chinese paper fan, or the super hair leaves who's base, Roberto pointed out to me, look just like a vagina. I know most of you all don't find that stuff very interesting... but it fascinates me.

 A group of howler monkeys on the lower slopes. The locals call them 'bongos'.

The lower slopes of the volcano had massive rocks, this was the easy part of the trail.

The first rest stop on the trail actually had benches, we hardly felt we needed a rest break at this point.

The lower slopes of Volcan Maderas were dry topical forest, mostly second growth.

But before long our hike took us into the clouds.

The trail split here at this coffee plantation. From here on up there were no signs of cultivation.

And the trail started to get muddy.

 Valerie is just over 5' tall, so these leaves have a solid 4' blade, almost 6' from stem to tip.

Tree fern!

The trail got crazy steep in places. It was all mud, sometimes just a slick surface, sometimes 6" deep, and a mix of roots or rocks or both.

 And yet just 2 days earlier there was the Fuego y Agua ultramarathon on these slopes. The 100k running race actually ran up to the top of Volcan Conception (5,200ft), then back down to lake level (100 ft), ran along the beach for several miles to Volcan Maderas (4,500 ft) back down again, then across the island again to the start. Muy Loco! I am told they mostly walked/hiked on the steep mountain slopes since it was too difficult to run. But still, loco. This area was called the Elf Forest BTW, I think cause the trees were relatively short.

Finally we descended the even steeper trail into the caldera of the dormant volcano. Scrambled down really. Where we had lunch by the shore of the lagoon. The clouds whipped past above us and swirled in the strong winds, forming as the slope of the mountain pushed the moist air up to cooler elevations where they would condense into clouds. Our lunch break was about 30 minutes long. There aren't many better places for a lunch break.

 Took a photo up there of a horizontal tree branch with just a few epiphytic plants growing on it. I had been shooting with my good camera up to this point, but the trail was so difficult I decided to stash it away in my backpack for the hike back down. This turned out to be a very good decision, but I don't have as many photos from the rest of the hike

 Fortunately for us, they had installed some posts with ropes between them on the trail into/out of the caldera. These were great aids on the climb back up. It may not have been possible without them.

The hike up the mountain wasn't really that hard. I got a cramp in one calf, but I was able to suck it up and get up there anyway. The hike down on the other hand, was, probably the most difficult hiking I have ever done. It was very, very slippery, and rough with the rocks and the roots, and very steep. That and I was wearing my Vibram Five Finger "toe shoes". Whiles these offer a lot of toe flexibility, they have virtually no padding and also almost no tread depth. So I was sliding all over the place on the way back down. I had to grab from tree to tree to support myself, and every big step down pounded into the bottom of my soft gringo feet.

Had to take a couple breaks on the way down, my legs were quivering with fatigue. The third rest stop we did down at the coffee plantation. Where we spotted some white-headed capuchin monkeys in the distance, so I pulled my good camera out of my bag and got some pretty good shots. But for the life of me I can't remember what the locals called the capuchins.

Here a couple other hikers stumbled down the mountain behind us. Both seemed like dirty hippy backpackers. The first spoke Spanish, but very little English, the guy with him spoke very little Spanish though which was odd, instead being a native English speaker. Also, he did the hike barefoot, which he reported was miserable. No doubt.
Our last rest stop was at the first view point, and got some good photos on this unusually clear day.

In the end, I have to say this ~10 mile hike was the most difficult one I have ever done. I heard from more than one local that it was only 8km (~5 miles) round-trip, but measuring it out on the map its pretty clear it was around 10 miles total.

Still, the relatively short distance belies the intensity of the experience: I have hiked to the top of a couple 12,000 ft, 13,000 foot, and even a 14,000 foot mountain. I've hiked the Grand Canyon from rim to rim in a day; 26 miles and a mile down followed by a mile up. The hike up Maderas was notably more difficult than that any of these. My legs and feet have never been so completely 'destroyed' after a hike, my legs have never felt that tired in my life. I could hardly walk uphill/stairs or downhill/stairs for 3 days, and I can still feel the soreness from the hike 6 days later, particularly in my calf where I got the cramp. With that said, its the middle of winter for me so I'm probably not at peak fitness (there were two young Chilean sisters who seemed to fly both up and down the mountain without effort, which didn't make me feel any better about my conditioning).

My choice of footwear was poor (though they were great for everything else we did on this trip) and I'm sure this contributed significantly to my difficulty in descending... good hiking boots would have gotten some grip in the mud and provided cushioning for my feet, in all they might have halved the effort of the descent. Still, I didn't have the worse shoes on the mountain that day:

The Swiss girl these shoes belonged to told me that though they were old shoes, they started the hike in one piece, without any duct tape on them.

In any event, we were all happy to be back at the Hotel/Hostel Santa Cruz. We took icy cold showers and scrubbed as much of the tenacious clay mud off us that we could, which is to say we got about half of it off of us. Val and I ate an early dinner and went to bed by 8 or 8:30.