Trail Flora: Fall

On the first day of autumn I took my camera on my ride.  It’s been not only a searingly hot summer here, but a very arid late summer.  By September 23 it had not rained even ½” all month.  Things were looking scruffy, wilted, dying.  At least some things.  But I wanted to see what fall flowers and interesting plants were still around.  And believe me, there were some.  This is a short selection, with apologies for the non-botanical captions:

Wild Aster

A yellow, daisy-like flower

Mimilus, or Jewelweed

Everybody's favorite allergen, Goldenrod

Pearly strings of little blossoms on bluish-green leaves

I’m astonished and thankful that there’s so much beauty left to bid summer farewell.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.



My favorite lyric for years concerning flat tires has been from Hank Williams’ “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.”  To wit:

We’ll put aside a little time
To fix a flat or two;
My tires and tubes are doin’ fine,
But the air is showin’ through.

Flat ties on a bike ride are no fun.  I go prepared with an extra tube, two tire levers, and a pump or CO2 cartridge.  I have a set for every bike, because every one of my bikes has a different size tire except for the Trek and the Bianchi.  I long ago decided that life was too short to deal with tube patches, especially when I can sometimes buy tubes for less than $5 apiece on sale.

There are basically three kinds of flats: compression, pinch, and puncture.  Punctures are sometimes inevitable; you just miss seeing the piece of glass, or the tiny and sometimes deliberately scattered tacks, or the sharp shard of metal.  I’ve even had a puncture from a long thorn, probably a Pyracantha, hidden in the grass cuttings and crap blown onto the trail by mowers.  Pinch flats are always your own fault, on one level.  They occur when the tube is pinched between the tire and the rim when you install the tube or replace the tire.  They can be largely avoided by being careful, inflating the tube just a bit at the beginning of installation, making sure the tire is seated right on the rim, inflating the tire about halfway, then deflating it, working your way around the rim with your fingers to loosen any twists, and repeating that whole process again, and then inflating to full pressure.  Ideally you then let the tire sit for a day before reinstalling it, just to make sure.  Compression flats are also your own fault, in a different way.  They happen when your fully inflated (c. 110 psi) road tire hits a hard obstacle and  the tire is momentarily compressed by the impact, raising the air pressure to a level that pops the tube inside.  They almost never happen with fat tires.

I had a compression flat a month or so ago caused by a worn tire.  I’d gotten an incredible 3000+ miles out of my original equipment Bontrager Race Lites on the Trek 2.1.  Coming home over the Vienna Hill, I hit a stone, shooting it off to the side with a kind of “pop” sound.  This happens all the time; I’ve even hit a couple of parked cars with the stones.  But this time my rear tire flatted, because it was so worn that it had little strength to resist the momentary compression of hitting the stone.  I knew the tires were on their last legs, and had bought Michelins with light blue sidewalls to replace them.  But I hadn’t done so yet, and I paid the price with a two-mile walk home.

I’ve mentioned several times already the autumn phenomenon of contrasty, dappled sunlight/dark shadow patterns; this time of year the sun is lower in the sky and the leaves are essentially all on the trees.  This combination often makes visibility difficult.  Last weekend I was out on a ride, taking an alternative climb to Hunter Station Road before heading out to Herndon.  I get off the Trail at Clark’s Crossing Road, climb that nearly to Beulah, Make a left and go down Brookside Lane to Meadowlark Road, left again to Abbey Oak Drive, down and through Sun Valley Park, up Lozano Drive almost to Beulah, and then retrace the route back to the Trail.  The toughest climb is up Brookside going back.  Almost as steep as Hunter Station but not as long.  The problem is that parts of this route have very bad road surface, notably on Brookside and parts of Abbey Oak, and much of the ride to Abbey Oak is quite shaded most of the year.

So on Sunday I’m going back toward the bike trail, zooming down a short, steep drop on Meadowlark before sweeping right onto Brookside for the climb.  Going around the turn onto Brookside I hit a bad pothole.  At least it must have been bad judging by the sharp, shocking impact.  I never saw it in the dappled shade.  My first reaction was “shoot, I hope I didn’t break a spoke,” followed immediately by “I’ll be darn lucky if I don’t have a flat.”  (Full disclosure requires me to stipulate that “shoot” and “darn” are euphemisms.)  Glancing at the front tire, I was just deciding that all was well when I heard the unmistakable rumble from the rear.  Way too much blue sidewall visible from above.

So I stop beside the grassy drainage ditch in front of a new McMansion subdivision.  It’s a very warm day, and without the evaporation of speed I am dripping.  I pull out my repair kit, remove the wheel, and get to work.  (The wheels on the new Trek are so much easier to remove and reposition that it’s not even funny.)  Tire and tube come off without a hitch.  The flat is of course a compression flat, a slit over an inch long at a seam.  So I install the spare tube.  All is well until the inflation process.  I’ve never used a CO2 cartridge before, though I have seen one used.  My device seemed to have an easy way to control the amount of CO2, and looked like it would work.  But the compressed gas did not go into the tube well.  It seemed to freeze up the valve stem and harden the tube.  The tire did not inflate at all, and the gas was gone.

I simply resigned myself to a 4 or 5 mile walk home and began trucking.  Jane was at a book group meeting and was unavailable to rescue me.  I got up Brookside, down Clark’s Crossing, and back on the Trail.  It was a weekend, and there was lots of traffic out there.  Before long I had a couple of cyclists who wanted to give aid.   One had a short hand pump, and the other another CO2 cartridge.  Neither worked.  Then we determined that there was a big hole in the replacement tube.  Had to be the result of my abortive attempt to use the cartridge, I think.  So one of my benefactors gave me another spare tube, inflated it with a second cartridge, and I was on my way.  For about 100 feet.  Then the tire blew again.  Trouble with cartridges is that you can’t do that whole routine to make sure the tube is seated.  Nor can you, with his anyhow, control how much of the cartridge you use.  So I think that the second blowout resulted from both over-inflation and a pinched tube.

As Emiril would say, “Bam!”  I was walking again, making a virtue of necessity by getting a few miles of exercise.  Trudging along, I envied the slowest, most awkward rider on the crummiest bike.  He was making better time, and having more fun, than I was.  Got home ar 4:30, and I was in a pretty grumpy mood for the rest of the day.  I know these events were beyond my control.  Sort of.  Could have taken it carefully and slow around that corner.   From now on I’m going to carry a hand pump in my Camelbak pouch, and I’m either going to ride more carefully or take a fat-tire bike on the route I rode that day.  As the narrator concludes at the end of “Margaritaville,” “it’s my own damned fault.”

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

Last Day of Summer

There is something especially poignant about the last day of summer.  Especially, for me, this year, although I can’t tell you exactly why.  Perhaps it’s the memory of last year’s awful winter, though the chance of another such within the next 25 years is slim.  Perhaps there’ll never be another such, until the next global cooling cycle begins in a few eons.  All I know is that I don’t want autumn to arrive just yet.  And yet it will, despite my wishes, descend shortly after 10 p.m. in these parts.

I think my real reason is that I want to extend the string of nice days for cycling.  We’ve had a wretchedly hot summer on the heels of our wretchedly snowy winter, and the count of days with 90+ degrees stands at 65, I believe, as recorded at Reagan National Airport down by the beautiful, (mostly) blue Potomac.  On many of these days, especially in midsummer, the air was so humid and the heat so firmly held in the ground that the temperature would shoot up at early dawn (around 6 a.m.) and beyond a reasonable level for beginning a bike ride by 7:30.

And so today, as a salute to the end of the freest, laziest season of the year, I took off for Leesburg.  It’s about 25 miles down the trail, so the ride ends up being a half-century. Putting myself in “touring speed” mode, I didn’t rush it, didn’t push too hard, but kept up a steady, fairly high pace.  It is amazing how much difference that makes to one’s energy reserves.  I usually ride, I think, at the fringe of the “red zone,” almost but not quite at my lactate threshold of 85% of maximum heart rate.  That’s the point at which the body can’t get rid of the lactic acid forming in the muscles quickly enough, and first pain and then cramping results.  At touring speed I am probably doing 75% of maximum heart rate, and the difference in stress on my system is palpable.  I don’t go quite as fast, but only about 1 to 1½ mph slower,  down from 16-15½ to about 14½.

The ride today was idyllic.  Being Wednesday, the Trail was practically empty, except for the inevitable Park Ranger truck and the more unusual cluster of police vehicles just this side of Herndon.  They’ve been having occasional trouble with indecent exposures, and I wonder if there was another episode.  Luckily I wasn’t wearing a trench coat.  It was sunny, but I eschewed sunglasses today, partly because of the low light angle and the light/dark contrast factor. I started at 10:30, and as the day went on the shadows stretched farther over the homebound side of the trail.  That was perfect, because the temperature was in the mid-seventies when I started out, but climbed through the mid-eighties on the way home and was 92º when I got there.  But it was a dry heat, and my body never felt under pressure.  Being out of direct sunlight also makes a huge difference.

Another huge difference was my hydration.  I used the Lezyme today because of its large capacity.  The adjustments I made after the first ride resulted in a dependable and comfortable feel.  I carried not only ice water (though it was “ice” only for a relatively short time today) but also PowerBars to keep the nutrition up.  I ended up eating one 280-calorie bar in two stages, and drinking at least one liter of water.  I also noted for future reference that the pack on this system has a perfect pouch for stowing gear on those autumn days when I might have to start with a warmer outer layer that I want to ditch halfway through a ride.  So this system will get even more extensive use as the season moves on.  Today my ride would not have been nearly as successful without a big hydration pack, because the sweat was pouring off as it warmed.

And yet there was a refreshing feel to the breeze, as if the wind were picking up the earth-cooled air from the bordering woods before it blew over the exposed Trail.  I never felt as if I was gasping for air, as I can when it’s humid.  The summer left with heat but also with a sense of comfort and finer weather to come.

[Written 9/22/2010]

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

Tour of Spain

The third and last major three-week stage race of the season ended today in Madrid.  The Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain) is perhaps the third highest in stature and significance, after May’s Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy) and July’s Tour de France.  Le Tour, of course, is the most important, because it has more strong riders and teams than the others; the Vuelta, for instance, left the American team RadioShack (Lance’s team) off the invitation list partly so that more Spanish teams could participate.

Le Tour also is the most difficult for riders, partly because the country of France offers a more diversified terrain, and partly because the organizers recognize that the premier of all road races has to offer the biggest challenges to riders.  The disparity between the two was illustrated by the situation at the end of the Vuelta today.  The top eleven finishers were within ten minutes of each other.  In this year’s Tour, there were nearly 15 minutes between places 1 and 11, almost 50% greater.  In short, while this year’s Vuelta offered a few good stage races and showcased some up-and-coming talent (not including this year’s second-place finisher in the Tour, Andy Schleck, who was dismissed from the race by his team for an egregious, drunken curfew infraction), it did not differentiate among the top finishers as clearly as the Tour’s more challenging course had done.  On the bright side, American Tom Danielson finished ninth overall, and American Tyler Farrar reinforced his reputation as an emerging sprint champion by consistently finishing strong and taking a couple of first place finishes, including today’s finale.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

Everything Old is New Again

Even with the twelve or so different routes I normally take, sometimes none of them seem just right for the mood when I am ready to ride.  The other day was one such, and I decided to spark things up by looking at one of my old routes in a new way.

One of my favorite rides runs southeast along the W&OD trail from here to Shirlington, a community on the border between Arlington and Alexandria.  The trail terminates just before it hits I-395, a spur from the DC beltway running up parallel to the Potomac to Reagan National Airport and the Pentagon, and finally across the river into DC near the Federal area.  From this point the cyclist can go on, taking a connecting spur to the Mount Vernon Trail, hooking up right at the airport.  Or one can turn back, as I usually do on this ride, ascending the Trail back to North Arlington, where I get off to ride a bumpy up-and-down loop through North Arlington, and then reconnect just a few miles from home.

Though I have done this ride well over a hundred times in the last few years, I have never before ridden the loop the other way.  And that’s what I did this time.  That meant leaving the Trail in East Falls Church, looping up through Arlington, and rejoining the Trail where the Custis Trail splits off to go northerly into Rosslyn.  What was it like?  Everything looks different, and sometimes one is almost disoriented by the new appearance of the road.  Familiar landmarks are on the other side of the road, if they’re visible at all, while old one loom up strangely.  Left turns become right turns, and vice-versa.  And that can have huge consequences for a cyclist.  The easy right-turn intersection suddenly involves crossing over a median and four lanes of traffic, for example.  New potholes appear; hidden drives and shady places pop up unexpectedly.

The terrain is also different.  What were downhills go up, and seem steeper.  What were uphills go down, and seem flatter.  Sudden dips become rises and catch me in the wrong gear.  One appreciates anew the nuances of uneven terrain by riding it in reverse.

My other new old experience on this ride was reacquainting myself with the Park.  Where the W&OD ends in Shirlington, I can ride south two blocks and get on the Four Mile Run Bike Trail.  This runs along the opposite side of Four Mile Run from the W&OD, and eventually reconnects with it a couple of miles upstream.  In doing so, it goes through two parks, Shirlington Park and Barcroft Park.  The former is just a grassy strip between the Trail and the Run, part of which is used by neighborhood folk to socialize and let their dogs cavort in the Run.  The real park is Barcroft, where there are playing fields and much-used pavilions where large groups of families and friends get together and grill burgers, play games, let the kids play in the playground equipment, and generally hang out.  Farther up, the park surrounds a narrow, twisty bike trail though the woods near water level, where there are a lot of suburban dog walkers and more playgrounds.  The other day the water was high from overnight rain–loud, rapid, and picturesque.  I used to take this way all the time, but riding my road bikes more often–they’re less suited to the terrain and the condition of the trail–has made a visit to the Park a rarity.  It was great to be out there with the walkers, the picnickers, and the occasional cyclist just resting by trailside on a weekend afternoon, enjoying the scenery.

I came home from that ride psychologically invigorated, as if I had turned a familiar sow’s ear into a new silk purse.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.


Yesterday nothing could have persuaded me to ride.  I was body-tired, my legs lacked strength, even breathing was a chore, as the air felt stuffy and close.  I’d ridden the day before at a regular pace, but for most of the ride I felt the lactic acid in my muscles.  All the way home they had a tiring, power-sapping ache.  The dynamic cycling broadcast duo, analysts and narrators Liggett and Sherwen, would be saying “Bradford’s on a bad day today.”  (One of my idle sports fantasies is/was imagining myself in a performance that is being broadcast.  In my youth it was Jim Britt announcing the Boston baseball game : “Three and two, the big one due.  Bradford toes the rubber; the southpaw kicks and deals . . . Strike three swinging!  Got him with a fastball.”)

But today I was on a good day, a very good day, I was “into my rhythm” and “on a great escapade.”  The sun was out, the air was cool, the breeze was gentle.  I was rested.  This morning I couldn’t wait to hop on the bike.  I could have ridden all day, but moderation prevailed.  While I was out there, on my route along the Potomac, I had no sense of time, of effort, of physical restrictions.  I was simply and fully into it, bike and body as one, soaking up the feelings, the sights, the sounds.  This kind of lucid consciousness doesn’t come very often, but it’s a luxury when it does.

[Written on September 15, 2010.]

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

Something Cool

June Christy sang a song with this title in the ’50s, back when lots of lyrics alluded to a life mysterious, sophisticated, emotionally complex, tinted by alcohol, adult.  Her song was bluesy and lonely, lyrical with narrative implied; the lady was alone in a bar, told her story to a stranger, got him to buy her a drink, and left as much a stranger as when they met.  In my teenage imagination I’d have loved the chance to buy her a drink, if only I knew what a “drink” was and how to order it.  I was not even The Graduate yet, not even from high school.

Today’s “Something Cool” was the weather.  Gotta love the seesaw changes we see this time of year.  Two days ago the high temperature was in the mid to upper 90s, despite the northwest breeze and the 13 (thirteen, count ’em–thirteen) % humidity.  Real desert weather; thank goodness no brush fires got going.  Today the temperature barely made it into the 70s, thanks to the fact that there was a persistent cloud layer rather than the “mostly sunny” that was universally predicted by local meteorologists.

But when I started out on my ride I assumed the sun would be out to warm things up.  It was not.  I’d not worn sunglasses; this is the worst time of year for bright sun/dark shadow contrasts.  Frequently you can’t see obstacles on the road in the dark patch ahead.  But I didn’t need them for quite another reason–no sun.  Consequently the air stayed cool, a feeling intensified by the evaporation from the northwest breeze and the headwind created by the speed of the bike.

My body needs to get used to being colder; I’ll be wearing my autumn gear before you know it.  So I like the goose bumps I got today.  I’ll take that kind of cool, even if it’s not from the kind of goose bumps I’d have gotten years ago having a fantasy drink with June Christy.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.