30 November 2010

Things I don't miss

As much fun as it was to see the fam last week, the trip back reminded me of a few things I don't miss about living in and around Chicago:
  • Pushy people. OK, it's a cliche, but it's true: folks in the South are just nicer. This manifests itself in a bunch of ways, notably when driving and when interacting with employees in stores or restaurants. There's a speed difference -- things just happen more slowly here vs. there -- but there's also a level of deference/courtesy that seems to be missing sometimes.
  • The wind. When you live in a forest, the wind doesn't tend to bother you too much. When the wind is blowing a steady 30 miles per hour over the corn fields and it's 20 degrees out, it does. I've not been in winter weather since last February, and I can't say as I miss it.
  • The clouds. With a bit of rain here last Tuesday, and solid cloud deck going on for hundreds of miles on Wednesday and Thursday, we didn't see the sun for more than 72 hours last week. It reminded me of the spring of 2008 or 2009, when Chicago went for 35 consecutive days with solid cloud cover. Thirty-five days of no sun. Here in Western North Carolina, we may get a day or three, and a solid rain in there, but in the year I've been here, we've not gone long before the sun breaks through.
  • The terrain and trees. Wow, it's really flat outside Chicago. And the trees are short. See The Wind above. Oh, and everything is brown by this time of year -- here in the mountains, even the grass is still green.
  • The time zone. Chicago is at the far eastern edge of the Central time zone; WNC is five hours west of the edge of the Eastern. Though Chicago gets morning sun sooner, the twilight comes quicker -- I think I like having sunlight on my drive/ride home from work better than in the cold morning.
  • Tollbooths. Boy I'm glad I still have my I-Pass. But how did I end up behind the two out-of-staters as we hit the Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road heading home last Sunday? Geez, people, get out of the way!
It's been a year now, and I have to say it was good to come home on Sunday. We're still sad about the family being so far away, but we'll just have to come up with a way to get them to come visit more often ...

24 November 2010

Thankful

A year ago, I did a month-by-month rundown of the things I'd miss about Chicago. At the time, one of my friends thought it would be neat to see what I'd say about my new home 12 months later ... so in the spirit of the season, here are the things I've been thankful for over the past 365 days:

January: I love that Western North Carolina has four seasons. I'm also very thankful that the seasons aren't as extreme as they are in Chicago -- our winter days are routinely in the upper 30s and low 40s, and the real cold hits at night. That, and winter is a good 6 or 8 weeks shorter. That said, I can't imagine raising Kate somewhere there was no snow!

February: Travel to and from Asheville is a breeze. Showing up at AVL 45 minutes before your flight means you'll wait at the gate for 35 minutes. We're not quite near anything, but we're not super-far either -- we can drive to the coast in 4 hours, Atlanta in 3 or so, Washington in 8, Chicago in 12. And with more and more flights in and out of AVL every month -- direct connections -- this heavy time of year for travel is as low stress as it gets.

March: As much as I might like the idea of winter, and want to make sure Kate knows how to sled and ski, March in the mountains means summer is just around the corner. Trees are blooming, the trails are loamy, and we just might sneak in a 70-degree day here or there. Yeah, it's nice to be in the South.

April: Now, there are times when Southern influence is maddening, and others when it absolutely rocks. April is one such time, as businesses still take Good Friday and Easter Monday off, creating a four-day weekend just as spring hits full stride and the trails are buzzing.

May: For anyone who survived Sheridan Road between 1997 and 2009, I invite you to Asheville. I think I can count the number of potholes on my way to work on one hand.

June: This one's obvious, but the quality, quantity and diversity of riding options here are unbelievable. To start, you have "stacked" mountains -- meaning you get lung-busting climbs, often with 20% grades, with descents that are over too soon, so you're on the gas all the time. You have incredible road rides, you can race track and UCI-level cyclocross ... and then there's the mountain biking. There's a reason Asheville native Willow Koerber is one of the best technical riders in the world ... but you also have miles-long pump tracks in DuPont. June is probably the second-best time to ride (after autumn), when the heat is just starting to hit and the post-ride soak in the river is still numbingly cold ...

July: One of the disadvantages of Chicago is that it's an enormous geography. Many of my good friends and riding partners lived just 10 or 15 miles away, but except for Sunday mornings, that equated to nearly an hour of driving to see them, or even longer on the train. Here, Asheville is 20 miles from Hendersonville and 30 miles from Brevard, with few traffic signals to slow you down. That helps to build our community, which is tight-knit to begin with -- Kim and Kate and I have had more social dates here than we ever had in Evanston, and they're easier to get to. It's a rare day on the trails when I don't run into someone I know. And they're good people -- we're very thankful to have such wonderful friends to spend time with, this far from our families.

August: I was born to eat Southern food. Allergies notwithstanding, I was making my own biscuits and gravy at age 10, the only vegetable I willingly eat is collard greens, I fully embrace the Waffle House experience (it's about more than just the pecan double waffle and hash browns smothered, covered and chunked), and the vinegar-mustard barbecue sauce native to South Carolina is mother's milk. That said, the diversity of food options in the Asheville area is astounding, from the most-excellent Papas & Beer "California" Mexican, through the Southern-with-a-twist Tupelo Honey Cafe, to the "diner" experience of Blue Sky Cafe and others, to the very well-done Thai, Indian and other more exotic experiences. They're not always close-by, but they're not hard to get to either. Multinational chain restaurant? What's that?

September: September is when we found both our homes -- in fact, our offer in Evanston was 9 years to the day before our closing in Hendersonville. To own a home halfway up a mountain with a full-on forest in the backyard has always been my dream -- sometimes you just get lucky! All this, and one-third the taxes of Crook County.

October: I can embrace my inner redneck. The Asheville-Greenville-Spartanburg DMA is the third-largest NASCAR television market in the country, despite only being the 36th largest overall. We have five tracks within 3-1/2 hours of here. We have no fewer than five rock/classic rock radio stations, and not one alternative that I've found (other than college stations). I get to say "y'all" and "dang!" and "good Lord" and "might could" without anyone batting an eye. And if I need my dose of Evanston-style liberal do-gooder, I've got that too -- Asheville is, after all, "the hole in the Bible belt."

November: It's cliche, but I really do love autumn in the mountains. The colors in October and even into November are unreal, and once the leaves fall the trails take on a new dimension of challenge and the land reveals secrets hidden by the lush forest for so much of the year. The quality of light in the area is incredible. I drove east on Saturday into an unbelievable sunrise, and home into an even more spectacular sunset. The shades of blue that envelope the mountains here is something to behold. Even then, there's enough green to remind you that spring will come again, and the smells in the crisp air catch you off-guard and sometimes surprise you.

December: It's kind of an odd thing to celebrate in December, but I love the diversity of outdoor activities we have available to us. For now, the spring and summer are taken up by riding and racing, but mixed in there -- and concentrated in the "off" season -- are opportunities for incredible hikes, zip-lining, paddling, rock climbing, skiing, swimming, boating ... the list goes on and on and on. And even better, it's all accessible: Whereas the closest camping to Evanston was 90 minutes away, here it's 20 minutes to the National Forest. It's going to take us the rest of our lives to run out of options, but I look forward to trying!

Our exploration of our wonderful new home has only just begun; check back with me in a year to see what else I've discovered!

22 November 2010

One year on

It's hard to believe it was a year ago today that I announced we were leaving Chicago. Maybe because we had been mulling it over and getting used to the idea far before it became a reality, or even a possibility, Kim and I share in the thought that it feels like longer -- not in a bad way, more in a home-y, familiar way.

A year ago this weekend, I spent a beautiful Saturday finding a home for us to move into, and a cold and rainy Sunday heckling the large Wisco crew at the Hendersonville 'cross race. This year, I spent a warm and beautiful Saturday building trail out in the Piedmont, and a warm and beautiful Sunday heckling the large Wisco/Midwest crew at the Hendersonville 'cross race. Not that the transition hasn't been without its bumps, but when you get right down to it, the mechanics of the move have come together to be pretty seamless.

My musical choices have changed since we moved, an indicator I think of my mindset and mood. I've put away a lot of my angry music, and even the introspection brought on by John Denver has taken a back seat. I did listen to A Song's Best Friend this weekend on my way to Lake Norman, but it has a new meaning for me now: The mountains and the forests and the streams are no longer a dream. They are home.

We broke out Wynken, Blynken, and Nod last week for Kate, and she was enthralled. In my mind's eye, I could see myself on my dad's lap, rocking to the rhythm of the words, and for a moment all that existed in her beautiful blue eyes was a sea of crystal light, the moon, and a wooden shoe.

I still don't know what the future is holding in store, but tomorrow is truly open, and for right now it seems more than enough to just be here today.

18 November 2010

Remember this?

When the snow cleared:
Reviewing the season:
Between ORAMM, the Stage Race and Double Dare, and prepping for ORAMM, the Stage Race and Double Dare, my list of Top Rides got ticked off one after the other. I've not made it to Tsali yet, and I have yet to do Big Creek from/to the Parkway, but any way you slice it, these past 12 months have been pretty freaking awesome.

What's even better is that I find myself attempting -- and sometimes cleaning! -- stuff I wouldn't have touched 6 months ago. That first trip down Daniel Ridge with Greg, back in April? Notsomuch. The second trip, 3 hours and 30-or-so minutes into SWANK? Oh, yeah. I have a long way to go before I conquer Farlow, but for a Pisgah newbie I feel pretty good about my first year here in WNC.

And 2011? It's going to be legen ... wait for it ...

15 November 2010

Of a certain age

Kim and I totally needed a mindless veg night on the couch last night, so we "Instant Q"-ed up a mindless-veg sort of bumbling romantic comedy and spent 90 minutes watching a storyline that's been done before but not necessarily better. It wasn't horrible, the cast was filled with mega-stars, and I've always had a thing for the leading lady, so I didn't mind.

But then this morning, it hit me: The window is closing. While the leading lady has still "got it," in my mind, she's moved from being the bumbling assistant-love interest to being the boss lady-love interest. And her erstwhile lover is now her assistant, and isn't it sort of scandalous how he's fallen for an older woman?

Actually, the ages aren't important, and in fact are rarely mentioned in romantic comedies anyway. But they're implied, and I realized this morning that all of a sudden, I'm not the demographic pictured on the screen. I'm *just* outside that not-mentioned 26-to-35 single, career-obsessed-but-wanting-love life that drives so many formulaic big-screen releases.

For a long time, Kim and I were good -- we were DINKs, and though married, enjoyed and identified with a good single-seeking-love comedy now and then. Really, I always felt just a bit too young for Hugh Grant-Julia Roberts, and was more of the John Cusak-grows-up-and-is-trying-really-hard type. But last night was different -- Kate is almost 2 now, and I can still remember when the actors who played the parents were romantic leads themselves ...

And that made me realize the window is closing, ever so slightly. Every day sees me creeping that much closer to 40, and while I've got a ways to go yet, wasn't it Meg Ryan who freaked out about that milestone once upon a time in her leading days? And isn't she herself playing a parent these days?

11 November 2010

Just because you can ...

OK, I'll admit up front: this post is going to seem exceedingly negative. But it's something I've got to say.

I think the whole Race Across the Sky thing stinks.

OK, I get it. there's beautiful scenery in Colorado. Any time Lance races, it's a spectacle. Rebecca Rusch, whom I consider a friend, is awesome, and deserves all the hype that surrounds her.

But Race Across the Sky, or RATS as I will refer to it hereafter, pisses me off.

First came RATS 2009, which FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY premiered in simulcast across the country. But then FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY happened, like, 20 times. I can sort-of understand a one-time "re-premier" because of technical glitches. But it felt like the damn thing was on the big screen week after week after week, and everyone was all ga-ga to spend their hard-earned cash to see it.

The reviews were less than stunning, and honestly, I had other things on my mind at the time. So I didn't see it then. In fact, the most positive thing I heard was that the stories of the "real life" racers made it worthwhile.

It took me a year to see it. I gave it the benefit of the doubt; I gave it a shot. And when I did, I was ... underwhelmed. The scenery is pretty stunning, but the writing? Um ... well ... meh. Laughably stupid in parts. Desperately in need of a screenplay. And editors. And I even like Bob Roll.

It felt like a couple of folks woke up one day, noticed Lance was racing, and decided to buy some cameras. Or rather, they had cameras, and put two and two together to equal ka-CHING. And it felt like Chris Carmichael was behind it all.

Which just makes me mad.

I respect real effort. I am one of Jason Berry's biggest fans -- in fact, his work on Off Road and 24 Solo is the reason I'm a mountain biker at all. It's exciting to see his progression as a filmmaker, and now -- thanks to Facebook and other Internet outlets -- his process. I really get what Ride the Divide is trying to do. Heck, I can even veg out and watch a Kranked video here and there.

But RATS? Not so much. In today's world of easy access, when anyone can get their hands on an HD camera and editing software, someone needs to remind folks that just because you can, doesn't mean you should. There's something to be said for quality, and I just didn't get that vibe from RATS.

And then ... and THEN! ... they went and did it again. RATS 2010. Same formula, even. Announce the ONE NIGHT ONLY event. Collect money. Experience technical glitches. Do a "re-premier," aka, a second ONE NIGHT ONLY event. Collect money. Experience the same glitches. Sometimes even give refunds. And, I'm guessing, plan to do it again three or four more times, until this. thing. finally. dies.

And in the meantime, give mountain bike movies a bad name. Force folks like Jason to work that much harder to find an audience (let alone a willing theater), since they'll have been jaded by money grubbing, bad films, two years in a row. Continue to prove the notion that without Lance, all cycling in the U.S. suffers.

And to me, that just stinks.

08 November 2010

'Tis the (off) season

It's kind of hard to wrap my mind around these past 52 weeks. One year ago right now, I was beginning to make plans to move to Asheville; a year later, here we are and I'm enjoying my post-season celebratory venti peppermint mocha sitting in my office watching the leaves fall, the mountains behind. Pretty amazing.

What's happened in between has been ... overwhelming. It all sort of hit me yesterday on my drive home from SWANK, as I worked through everything that has occurred this year. Some of it has been public knowledge; most of it private, but any way you slice it, 2010 has been a little nutty. I'm really hoping 2011 is a bit more sane.

Yesterday went as well as could be expected, what with a quarter-mile run on a still-messed-up ankle, choking singletrack to start, and some of the more difficult trails in Pisgah thrown in the mix. Add in the "recovery" this week from Double Dare, and my focus for SWANK was to finish ... which I did. Actually, it was a pretty fun day on the bike, and I'm glad to say I'm now 5-for-5 toward my goal. Two more races to go!

Really, SWANK was a good time with a challenging course, and I'm proud of what I did. I stayed patient on the opening climb, I pushed when I could, I rode more of Farlow than ever before, and I mostly stayed upright and enjoyed the day. I entered the singletrack about 30th, and stayed there most of the day, trading places on the fire-road climbs for the long, technical descents. I might have gotten as high as 20th at one point, and managed to make up 4 or 5 places on the last cloverleaf. In the meantime, I had a small crash on Butter that lost me at least 8 places, and I lost another 5 or 6 on Farlow. I tell you: if I ever learn to ride downhill, I'm going to be a force to be reckoned with ...

Meanwhile, Wes was killing it again, and apparently only a bridge separated him from Sam, as they both finished an hour ahead of me. Wes' and my fitness have been on opposite trajectories this year, crossing at the stage race as he peaked and I went into show (and thus, eating) season. Who said guys with beards aren't fast?

And I'm good with that. When I consider this year, all the changes and challenges, I'm content with what I've done. It doesn't mean I'm not eager to dive into 2011, but considering there were more than a few moments of darkness, I'll take a 2010 that saw me familiarize myself with Pisgah and finish with a stellar descent into Cove Creek. That's how I plan to start next year, after all!

01 November 2010

I Double Dare you!

This is how I spent my weekend ...

For those not familiar, we were given "passports" with up to 10 checkpoints we could try to reach, taking a photo at each one to prove we were there. This was Choose Your Own Adventure at its best! Rules here. Required gear here. Passports here.

These were the routes Greg and I chose. Let's see if I can remember this correctly ...

Saturday - 12 hours on the nose

Mandatory start route: Cove Creek > 225A. Then 225 > 475B > 276 > 477 > Bennett (checkpoint 1 at Saddle Gap) > 476 > Clawhammer > Maxwell > Black (checkpoint 2 at Turkeypen Gap Trail) > Turkeypen Gap Trail (checkpoint 3 at Wagon Road Gap) > SMR (checkpoint 4 at Mullinax) > Mullinax > Squirrel (out and back, checkpoint 5 at Laurel Gap) > Laurel/Bradley > 5015 > 1206 > 5000 > Bear Branch singletrack (checkpoint 6 at top) > 5001 - Bear Branch road > 5000 > Spencer Gap (checkpoint 7 at Trace Ridge, lights on) > Spencer Branch > Never-Ending Road (checkpoint 8 at Middle Fork) > Middle Fork > Spencer Branch > Reservoir Road > 5000 > 1206 > Slate Rock - 320A (out and back, mandatory checkpoint 9 on Slate Rock) > 1206 > 276 > 475B > 225 (to gate!) > 225 > Mandatory finish: 225A > Cove Creek (finishing with a flat tire!)


Sunday - 9-1/2 hours of riding

Time Trial: 809 - Cove Creek Road > 475 > 471 (pick up passports at 471D). Then 471D (checkpoint 1 at Butter Gap) > Butter Gap (checkpoint 2 at Long Branch, lights off) > Long Branch > 475 > 229 (mandatory checkpoint 3 at Farlow Gap) > Farlow Gap (checkpoint 4 at Daniel Ridge) > Daniel Ridge > 225A > 225 > 475B > 276 > Pink Beds (checkpoint 5 at Barnett Branch) > 476 > SMR (out and back, checkpoint 6 at Wolf Ford) > Buckhorn Gap > Black (out and back, checkpoint 7 at shelter) > Black (checkpoint 8 at Pressley Gap) > Maxwell > 477 > Bennett (checkpoint 9 at Coontree Gap) > Coontree > 276 > 475 > 809 - Cove Creek Road > FINISH!

Just how close was it? After Saturday, the 2nd through 5th-placed teams were tied. As it was, 2nd through 4th finished overall virtually tied, with 2nd and 3rd edging us out based on passing an extra Mandatory Test and with time bonuses. I think it's safe to say it was the most competitive Double Dare yet!