Little Things

Hello there.  In case you’re worried about my two week absence, I’m still doing my thing – slowly taking over the cycling world one blog post at a time.  Of course if you’re a There And Back Again Premium Member, you’ve been following my exploits on Facebook and seeing exciting content that never makes it into this blog, like pictures of bikes under a tarp at Wal-Mart and an exciting feature where I equate my cycling mileage for the year to its corresponding year in history.

Premium Memberships are currently available at no additional charge to subscribers of our regular blog service.  In case you are not aware, you may subscribe to our regular blog service by hitting the “Follow” button on the right side of this page or by simply stopping by here from time to time.  To become a Premium Member, simply like this page on Facebook.

That’s right, this is a long-winded and circuitous attempt to increase the number of likes on my Facebook page!

The Salt Ride

As for cycling, the rides have been few as of late due to the very cold weather and snow we’ve been experiencing.  Sunday offered a great respite from the cold and I managed to get a fast 30 mile ride in on salt-covered roads.  And that would be the main story from this ride – salt.

Northern Virginia isn’t used to heavy snowfalls so when they come, the road crews go at their jobs with gusto.  Their only tool seems to be the application of stupendous amounts of salt to the roads.  So much salt is used that days after the roads are cleared, their residue is to be found everywhere, including cars which are now caked with it and the streets themselves which still have it on their surface.

I took a picture of the salt on the road with my iPhone.  When I got home I noticed my finger had covered up half the shot.  It doesn’t look like I’m ready to make the switch to iPhone photography on my rides.

Back to salt.  Salt on the roads takes two forms, the small hills that collect around intersections and the thin layer of dust that accumulates on road shoulders.  The hills can be easily avoided; the thin layer less so.  Basically, the layer of salt dust doesn’t present a problem other than turning your tires white, but it is important to know that you are not actually touching the road because of this layer.  At high speeds, this can be a very significant issue.  On Sunday, I definitely began noticing an odd sensation during a 30+ mph descent.  I got the sensation that the bike was floating, much like when NASCAR drivers report their car is “feeling loose.”

I didn’t care to extend the experiment further to see what would happen if I pressed things, so I dialed it back a bit on the downhills.  That’s too bad because I had a fast ride and would likely have logged one of my best times ever on this course.

Exciting Developments In The Neighborhood!

Last week I was excited to discover my humble neighborhood would once again host a sprint triathlon (of course, Premium Members already know this – hint!  hint!).  Before I got back into cycling, this annual event was a mild curiosity for me.  I would pass the athletes and grumble to myself (good naturedly, of course) that one lane was closed for this event, thus slightly inconveniencing me as I drove my car on my weekend errands.  When I got back into cycling in 2010, I eagerly looked forward to the next triathlon, only to discover that it was cancelled.  Apparently, too many of my neighbors had similar grumbly feelings and actually acted upon them, thus banning the event.  Well, somehow, someway, it’s back!

A two mile downhill pedal to the start line will be quite pleasant for me.  The triathlon is a sprint, meaning the distances are fairly short.  It’ll feature a half mile swim in Lake Montclair (where presumably the pontoon boats will be kept at bay by race officials), a 12.9 mile bike ride, then a 5k run.  Very doable and very fun on the last Sunday in June.

How To Be A Road Biker Video

Since I’ve done a terrible job with illustrations in this post, let me add a little color with this humorous video that is making rounds on the web.  It lists 27 steps to becoming a road biker.  I have successfully completed 19 of them.  I’ll let you guess which ones I need to finish.  Hint:  the bike pictured in Step 1 is the exact same model that I own (except for a different saddle and handlebar tape)!


New Year’s Ride

An optimist stays up until midnight to see the New Year in.   A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.

~Bill Vaughan

New Years Day is a busy time in my cycling world.  There are several administrative activities that are required, including updating the blog’s odometer and creating a new worksheet in the Excel spreadsheet I use to catalog my rides.  Finally, all 2013 photos must be stored in a newly created folder so my picture files for 2014 don’t overwhelm my tidy little electronic storage system.

All of this took at least fifteen minutes. With the administrative issues out of the way, I set out on my annual New Years Ride.

It was a sunny day and the breeze was tolerable, so the 40 degree temperatures weren’t excessively cold.  I wasn’t interested in setting speed or endurance records so I took a route through neighborhoods that forced me to spin my wheels a bit.  I stopped by Lake Montclair to take a pic of the dam.

Montclair DamThis is the site of my triathlon swimming training sessions.  I would start at a small beach just out of frame to the left and swim to the shore on the far side about 1/4 mile away while trying not to look like I was having an epileptic seizure.  The lake seems tranquil now but on a nice summer’s day that water would be dotted with all manner of small boats and floating docks.  Pool training would probably have been better, but the price at the lake was perfect (you can’t beat free) and it was much faster to hop on my bike after my swim and start riding.

I made a point of going by St. Mary’s Catholic Church (Byzantine Rite) so I could take a pic or two.  The architecture is very unusual for this part of the country and I always enjoy a brief moment to look at it.

IMG_1137There are many different religious faiths in my neck of the woods.  That gives me an idea for a future ride, during which I photograph the various buildings for your viewing pleasure.  I’ll start noodling out some routes and when spring gets here I’ll be ready.

I finished my meanderings after 21 miles and pulled in with the sedate average pace of 14.0 mph, including my photo stops.  I happily updated my odometer, because showing a zero up there is very depressing.

I am now officially started on my 2014 journey.  Best of luck to you in your riding in the new year!

Night Moves

I have a day job with a 70-minute commute.  This means that any weekday cycling during the winter months must be done during hours of darkness.  Previous to the acquisition of my new camera, night photography was almost impossible.  If I had a great deal of light and a tripod, I could pull it off with adequate results (thus the Christmas Light Hunt post two weeks ago).  Now I have the ability to take better photos without needing to lug a tripod around with me.  Below are some pics from last night’s very cold (28 degrees) but otherwise unremarkable 16-mile ride:

I traveled eastward toward I-95 and took this pic on the bridge over the highway.  I like the way the headlamp illuminates a circle on the sidewalk.


There are still a great many houses displaying their Christmas lights.  Since last night was only the “9th Day of Christmas” I suppose this is appropriate.  And no, I did not give my True Love nine ladies dancing.  I suspect we’ll be seeing lights well into late January.


Our final shot was taken about half a mile from my house on a pathway linking the neighborhoods of Montclair and Lake Terrapin.


I was happy to get home and out of the cold.  I had no near misses with cars and encountered only one jogger (who smartly was wearing flashing lights) and one pedestrian without incident.  Always a plus!

The 2012 Christmas Light Hunt

As it became obvious to me that the Mayans were wrong and the world would not come to an end today, I decided to get back to the business of updating this blog.  I also decided the time was ripe for my annual Christmas light ride.

The 3rd Annual Christmas Light Hunt was conducted this evening under partly cloudy skies and a brisk breeze.  Temperatures were appropriately cold, slightly above freezing, and even an occasional snow flake fell from the sky.  Ride membership remained consistent with previous years, holding at a total of one rider.  Road conditions were excellent, which made me quite happy as I recalled the icy conditions of the inaugural event.

This year’s ride took me around Lake Montclair on a nine mile route.  With several stops for picture-taking, the ride lasted over an hour, meaning it wasn’t very much of a cardio workout.  Still it was quite fun and merry, at least it was until I dropped my camera and broke it.  It is possible the camera can be fixed.  I’ll know in the coming days when my blood pressure drops sufficiently to attempt a repair.

I have used the handy WordPress Gallery  feature to display this year’s images.  Just click on any one of them and slide show begins.  Here’s wishing you and yours a Very Merry Christmas!

The Montclair-Lake Terrapin Criterium

Fellow blogger Matt Gholson over at Barn Door Cycling recently took readers on a tour of his town.  I liked the post and warned Matt that I would shamelessly copy him.   I have now done so, by revealing this exciting criterium-style course I have been using through my suburban neighborhood of Montclair and the adjoining neighborhood of Lake Terrapin.  I have creatively named this 4.75 mile circuit the Montclair-Lake Terrapin Criterium.  I believe a tour of this route gives a nice picture of cycling in suburban America.  Enjoy.

Le Depart

The course starts on Spring Branch in the stately neighborhood of Montclair.  Montclair has grown from its initial role in the 1960s as a recreational spot for wealthy Washingtonians with cottages next to a manmade lake, to a gated community, to a sprawling 15,000-person neighborhood with a Home Owners Association.  Most housing construction was completed in the 1990s, making it one of the elder neighborhoods in the area.  Old-timers will tell you stories of how this entire region was nothing but forests and dirt roads in the 1970s.  It’s hard to see that now.

A short climb up Spring Branch brings the first turn, a left across rush hour traffic onto Holleyside Drive.  There is a steady stream of cars to negotiate but, in the unfortunate event of a crash, first aid is close at hand as Fire Company 17 of the Dumfries Triangle

Spring Branch & Holleyside with DTFD #17 in the background

Volunteer Fire Department sits proudly at the intersection.  I don’t know much about these fellows except they stop by the house once a year soliciting donations in return for a nice photography deal.  They also sponsor a very popular pancake breakfast every July 4th.

A few hundred yards down Holleyside and the road slopes downward dramatically.  Speeds in excess of 30 mph can be achieved as long as one is careful to dodge skateboarders, loose dogs, joggers, cars being driven by teenagers, and other impediments of suburban life.  On this occasion, my descent was slowed by an ice cream truck, making my ascent on the far side of the ravine more demanding.  Stupid ice cream trucks.

After making the climb, the rider is rewarded with a gentle

Montclair Elementary

descent toward Tallowood Drive.  The intersection is congested and the opportunity for collision is significant as the cyclist will be tempted to coast through despite poor visibility due to trees and cars parked along the curb.  A short distance further and we pass one of the neighborhood’s institutions of learning, Montclair Elementary (home of Monty, the Cardinal!).  Distinguished alumni of this school include the author’s youngest son, who will someday invent cold fusion or cure the common cold or do something of similar consequence.  In the meanwhile, he is playing video games and eating potato chips.

Let no one say this is not a technically demanding course.  Immediately after the school, the rider must negotiate the challenging transition from Montclair to Lake Terrapin.  This is

Entering the path

done by somehow getting on a short walking path that connects the two communities.  You can either attempt to use the sidewalk, now shared by a large bush, or swing leftward and pedal through a parking space, past a guard rail and hop onto the sidewalk from the left side.

The challenge isn’t over at that point.  The rider must now travel downhill toward a sidewalk, execute a right turn and enter the road near the intersection of Leatherneck and Lake Terrapin Roads.  You will note the doggie poop bag distribution box on the right side of the trail.  This is a favorite pet walking area, along with anyone attempting to move between the two communities, which happens with great frequency as the Terrapinites travel to and from the school.  Bike handling skills are almost always tested at this point in the course.

Descent into Lake Terrapin

Lake Terrapin and the beginning of “Lake Terrapin Hill”

Having traveled two miles at this point, the rider dashes down Leatherneck Road until it once again joins Lake Terrapin Road, the major thoroughfare for the subdivision of the same name.  Lake Terrapin is a newer neighborhood than Montclair, with most homes being built within the past ten years.  This is where the “new money” goes.  As we pass by the manmade lake, the rider comes to his greatest challenge – the ascent of “Lake Terrapin Hill.”  With a slope of 10% for about four hundred yards, the rider eventually climbs sixty feet (that’s about 5,000 meters for those more comfortable with the metric system).

Descent on Daybreak Lane

The turn onto Loggerhead Place is the highest point in the course.  If this were a really cool race, fans would be handing out newspapers at this intersection so the riders wouldn’t freeze on the upcoming descent.  Unfortunately, the only people greeting riders are drivers of automobiles; if they simply pass without incident that is the most comfort we can expect.  The descent down Loggerhead and onto Daybreak Lane is actually quite fast.  Riders must watch out for cars, fathers hauling in garbage cans from the curbside service earlier in the day, and mothers crossing the street with their little boys as they head to Boy Scout meetings (all these happened on this ride).  The turn onto Diamondback Road is greater than 90 degrees and at 20-25 mph can be a little tricky if one is not careful.

The Most Ancient and Venerable Community Center

Further down Diamondback is the Lake Terrapin Community Center (Social on August 10th, Luau August 17th and a Board of Directors Meeting to be held later this month).  There are basketball courts and a playground, which were empty, and a pool which was occupied with a few early evening revelers.  Quite often police officers from the Prince William County Police Department park at this intersection and write speeding tickets for cars descending Lake Terrapin Hill.   I worry that one day I’ll be caught as I have been known to reach speeds in excess of 35 mph while traveling in this 25 mph zone.

Dashing past the lake a second time, we find ourselves pedaling uphill on Chula Place.  There is often a street basketball game in progress here but not tonight; the only obstacle was the work trucks of Garcia and Sons Construction which was doing some work in one of the neighborhood lawns.  Turning onto Leatherneck once again, we come to an old family cemetery that has been fenced off by the developers.  You can tell there used to be several rows of graves here (about five rows of ten graves) but there is only one marker still remaining, that of a Charles Thomas who died in 1902.  I wonder what Mr. Thomas would think of his country farm now.  I ask the owner of the house across the street what he thinks of living near a grave yard and he informs me they make excellent neighbors.


At the top of Spring Branch, ready to sprint to the Start/Finish Line

Having completed the Lake Terrapin portion of the ride, it is time once again to cross the treacherous pathway into Montclair, make a sharp right onto Camellia Lane and follow a loop which deposits the rider back on Tallowood near the school.  Riding back to Holleyside and turning right, we climb the final ascent of the route, about two hundred yards of climbing at 8% grade.  All that remains at this point is the descent down Spring Branch to the Start/Finish line and your lap is complete: 4.75 miles and 900 total feet of climbing.  You may repeat as often as you can to achieve your cycling goals.

Hope you enjoyed the tour and Matt, thanks for the idea!

July 4th

Every year in the neighborhood in which I live, there is a nice fireworks display over Lake Montclair on the 4th of July.  We’ve been here since 2002 and the location is exactly 1.6 miles from my house.  The fact that we have always driven our car to this event says a great deal about the role of the automobile in American culture.  To be fair, we planned on riding our bikes last year but decided on not attending as thunderstorms were forecasted.

So this year had a bit of excitement to it as I fitted headlights to the family’s bikes and my wife (who has taken the moniker, “Diesel” due to that engine’s ability to keep chugging along) loaded some blankets and bug spray into a backpack.  We pulled up to the local golf course where we usually view the show and parked our bikes on the edge of an area reserved for members of the country club.  Of the hundreds of people present, we could see only about ten bicycles.  The only excitement occurred when some children accidentally ran into the bikes, sending my son’s and Diesel’s onto their sides.  Both bikes survived the incident.

“Diesel” and #3 Kid sitting in front of the soon-to-be-knocked-over bikes and the fleet of country club golf carts.

After a nice fireworks display, we turned on our lights and headed home.  The usual crowd of pedestrians trying to get to their cars and cars trying to drive through the pedestrians occurred.  We zipped through the congestion and arrived home much sooner (and sweatier as it was quite warm) than we normally would have.

My wife discovered the challenges of riding at night with a underpowered headlight (she used my backup light, good for being seen but not very good at illuminating the road).  If she is to do something like this again, I think it will be necessary to spend the money for a quality light.

I leave you with this self-portrait, taken during this morning’s jaunt around the Manassas Airport.  I can’t say very much caught my eye so I’m afraid this is the only picture I took.  I shall try to do better in the future.

Hurricane Irene

With great fanfare, Hurricane Irene arrived at my location late Saturday morning.  After a 5.9 magnitude earthquake on Tuesday, this promised to be an exciting end to a week of odd weather in our part of the world.  We haven’t had a hurricane visit us since 2003, and that one (Isabelle) did a great deal of damage.  After 20 hours of solid rain and 30-40 mph winds, the excitement was over a little after daybreak on Sunday.  Peaking out my windows, the storm didn’t appear to do much damage.  After cleaning up my own yard, I decided to break out my hybrid and have a look around.

Having seen first hand the devastation at Homestead, Florida, as a result of Hurricane Andrew, it seems inappropriate to call what I witnessed “hurricane damage.”  There was an occasional fallen tree and lots of branches/leaves in the road.  That’s about it.  A better phrase would be “strong storm damage.”  The eye of the hurricane stayed next to the Virginia coast, about 100 miles from where I live, so my area got off quite lightly.

There are reportedly hundreds of thousands of people without power in the DC area.  I’ve had no problems but four miles into my ride I caught a glimpse of the challenges faced by the local utility companies.  Northern Virginia Electric Company (NOVEC) was working to fix a downed power line near the Dale City Moose Lodge.

I was happy to have my hybrid (aka “Old Ironsides”) out with me.  I haven’t ridden it in over three months and it was good to take it out for a spin.  With its flat pedals, its easier to hop on and off while investigating things and the fatter tires make handling the road debris a little easier.  And if I break it, it’s a lot less expensive than the Trek!  I was particularly happy to be on it as I passed under Waterway Drive, using a cart path for the local golf course.  I almost became mired in some nasty, wet goo at the bottom of this dark passageway.  I am certain the Trek would have become stuck, forcing a rapid unclip followed by a dismount and trudging through ankle-deep muck for 30 feet.  Not cool.  As it was, Old Ironsides plowed through it in good form and I emerged with clean feet.

I wandered through some side streets and found nothing out of order.  People were outside, picking up twigs and blowing leaves with their leaf blowers.  That’s as exciting as it got, I’m afraid.  I paused on my way back for a pic by a damaged pear tree on Waterway Drive.  These trees are notoriously weak and any strong storm usually claims at least one of them.

With the temperature at 90 degrees, I pulled back into my drive after a refreshing 10 mile pedal.  It’s good to know Old Ironsides is still ready to serve.  As the weather turns in the next few months, I’ll be reaching for it more often.

My Photo Shoot

 As an Important and Influential Blogger, it should be of no surprise to you that a professional photographer recently requested permission to photograph me while I demonstrated my cycling technique.  After learning more about this event, you might point out that the photographer was my daughter, who only wanted the pictures so she could complete a homework assignment for her college photography course.  You would be right.  You would also be a killjoy.  So let us focus on the more uplifting aspects of this event and avoid the more mundane portions, shall we?

For the backdrop of our photo shoot, my photographer selected a parking lot at the extremely glamorous and scenic Montclair Elementary School (home of the Cardinals!).  After setting up her equipment and checking the lighting, we got to work on her primary goal: a photograph which blurred the background behind me while keeping me in focus.  Behold, the first-ever photograph of Yours Truly on a bicycle, taken by someone other than Yours Truly!

It took a surprisingly large number of attempts to get this photo.  There were several technical details involved that I was only dimly aware of.  Having completed our main project, my photographer decided to do some experimenting.  The below “Salvador Dali” photo was the result.  My photographer informs me that she is in the process of applying some of the dark arts of photo editing to further alter the picture.  That should be interesting!

Then we took some black and white shots, because nothing says “Up-Scale and Hip Photography” like black and white!

Here, I demonstrate a proper (ie., “cool”) resting position.  There are accepted techniques for standing around with your bike.  This is one of them.  Enjoy.

My photographer then wanted to get the rider out of the picture so she could focus on subjects that were more visually appealing, like my bike by itself.  I did my best to keep it upright by holding the rear tire out of frame.  My photographer asked me why I didn’t have a kick stand for my bike.  I laughed.  A lot.  Then I told her it was too hard to explain.

Here’s another shot of the bike, sans rider. 

I must say that I am very impressed with my photographer’s work.  It’s not easy making me look acceptable and I believe she has done so admirably.  Incidentally, if you are in the Northern Virginia area and would like some pictures taken, she is available for a small fee.  You can reach her at this website:  FreeThinking Photography.

Plodding Along

click for details

10 miles in a freezing moonless night was the best I could do today.  My concerns over visibility forced me onto the neighborhood sidewalks, where I contended with seams in the cement, walkers, joggers, and pet owners.  The poor lighting also caused me to slow down, all of which kept my pace embarrassingly slow. 

I tried an experiment on the local golf course.  I thought perhaps the cart path would make a nice ride.  I wouldn’t recommend this, especially on dark nights.  It was way too difficult to figure out where the path picked up on each hole.  After wandering over three holes, I gave up and pressed on.

Sunset tomorrow will be one minute later than it was today.  Baby steps.

Christmas Ride

I’ve never ridden a bike on Christmas Day, primarily due to the fact that I’ve usually lived in places where riding a bike in December is viewed as a symptom of mental imbalance.  However, after a season of cycling I now understand that there is no place too cold for cycling.  At least that’s what all the other cyclists say and they can’t all be wrong, can they?  I therefore resolved to head out for a short pedal.

The roads and paths are still a little dicey with ice, so I opted for the hybrid bike.  This gave me an opportunity to go off-road a bit and visit Lake Montclair.  As you can see from the photo, the lake is frozen.  We’ve gone entire winters without the lake freezing, so this is a good indication of the kind of winter we have had – not much snow but freakin’ cold.  Almost every day in December has been below seasonal norms.  Sigh.

I had a chance to dabble in the mountain biking discipline by riding a narrow path next to the lake.  I can report that the knobs you find on mountain bike tires are very useful.  I know this because my hybrid’s tires lack this feature and I found myself wishing for those knobs about every twenty feet.  Each root, rut, rock, and other protrusion in the trail threatened to send me off the path and down a five foot embarkment onto the lake ice.  I strongly suspected the ice would not withstand that impact.  Despite the element of danger, it was a fun 1/2 mile.  

Once back on the neighborhood roads, I headed in an unusual (for me) direction – east.  This takes me toward the congested areas of the county and I therefore seldom venture this way.  My goal was a modest one – to read and photograph a historical marker on Benita Fitzgerald Drive.  I drive past this marker almost every day on my commute.  The markers are almost always on the side of the road, but the writing is too small and lengthy to read as you drive by, which I find very frustrating and just a tad self-defeating.  If you put up a sign and nobody can read it, what exactly is the point?  This marker is tucked into some shrubs, making it impossible to even read the title.

The Benita Fitzgerald marker in its natural setting

As it turns out, this was a first in my growing collection of historical markers.  Most markers highlight a significant event that occurred on or near a given spot.  This marker explains why a road was given its name.  Benita Fitzgerald Road’s namesake grew up in this area in the 1970s and attended a highschool a few miles from this location.  During her youth, this specific area was nothing but woodland, but lets not let that detail get in the way of a good historical marker!

Click for details

I pedaled back to the traffic signal in the background of the above picture and turned onto Cloverdale Drive.  Like the rest of this trip, I was pedaling through neighborhoods and competing with light but alarmingly inept traffic.  It must have been the holiday, but I came too close to a “significant event” on three occasions, each one with a driver racing up to the street I was on and hoping to quickly make a turn onto it.  The absence of other cars emboldened these drivers, who didn’t notice the fool riding his bike in the cold weather.

I successfully avoided any mishap and finished my ride in fine form.  My Garmin informed me that the temperature was 34 degrees.  I am taking solace in the fact that the solstice occurred a few days ago and therefore every day has slightly more sunlight than the previous one.  The end is in sight!

Not much competition for sitting on the bench