Letting my legs take over the ride

June 15, 2018

legsWith my injured leg muscles well again (thanks to my therapist’s counsel and a winter that stretched into April), it’s time to regain strength in my bicyclist’s legs. The sports medicine doctor assured me that I will be able to continue cycling the way I have done all these years: many miles per day, day after day (age-adjusted, of course).

My sister, a few years younger than I, has invited me to an aggressive ride up Hurricane Ridge Road in the Olympic National Park in celebration of her mid- August birthday. A four-day bike tour of the Columbia River Gorge earlier that month will help me resume this kind of cycling.

My training plan to get ready for these events combines advice from doctors, expert long-distance cyclists, and my own experience as aggressive open road cyclist.

Ride enough miles all year to keep good base strength. For several years, I’ve been cycling about seventy-five miles a week, including one vigorous ride of thirty to forty miles. During this winter of reduced mileage, that base has declined, and now I’m beginning to rebuild. Progress during the past month is encouraging.  

Overtraining does more harm than good. So get your rest days in. This wording comes from an article by Dr. Conan Chittick with IU Health Physicians Family and Sports Medicine. A day of reduced activity after three days of hard activity, he writes, allows muscles to restore and regenerate. At this stage in my recovery, I’m finding that one long, hard ride per week, two or three shorter but vigorous rides and at least one day with no rides at all is a pattern that works. I’m back to seventy-five miles per week and feeling better!

Ride about 10% of your miles, especially on longer rides, at close to maximum effort. This is one of the recommendations that ultra-marathon cyclist Lon Haldeman gives to cyclists who sign up for the challenging tours that he and Susan Notorangelo conduct through their company PAC Tour (Pacific Atlantic Cycle Tours). I’ve done ten of these tours  and know from experience that this guideline works. These short bursts at full power output help legs and lungs learn how to ride that way and gradually all of a cyclist’s miles become faster and overall condition improves.

I don’t keep a close count on these miles; instead, I let the road do the counting. Most routes have hilly sections, even if some are little more than highway and railroad overpasses. Rather than gearing down, I keep pushing and often can ride right through.

Hydrate more. On one of my many several stays in Claremont, California, I was cycling up an easy grade on a lower slope of Mt. Baldy. Twenty minutes into the climb, I stopped to watch a filming crew at work. Standing there, I grew so dizzy that I had to lean on my bike to keep from falling. As soon as I got home, I talked with my doctor (also an experienced road cyclist).

After examining me and finding nothing wrong, he recommended that I wear a water carrier on my back so that I could more easily keep hydrated. On long rides, especially in remote areas I do what he recommended because it is easier to keep the liquid flowing in when the drinking tube is right there by my mouth. On shorter rides, I still depend upon water bottles. The purpose is to keep drinking so that the heart more easily can keep the blood flowing.

“And don’t push so hard; it might be dangerous.” As I was leaving, my doctor added this warning, explaining that no matter how much you train your heart slows down as you grow older. It made sense, partly because on my own I had recognized that I could push too hard. Maybe thirty years earlier, I was climbing legendary Mt. Tabor Hill on the Hilly Hundred cycling event near Bloomington, Indiana. At the top, I nearly passed out and vowed to ease up a little. I also got some lower gears on my bike to help me in the effort.

A corollary to the rule: “There’s no hill too steep to walk.”

Pay attention to muscle memory. On a thirty-mile ride two weeks ago, I realized as I neared home, that my head was telling me “Slow down,” but my legs kept saying “Go!” There are times when pedaling cadence, breathing, and muscle load are in perfect balance and you can go forever, or so it seems. On two or three rides this spring that same feeling has come, and for a few minutes I quit thinking and let my legs take over the ride. The next day, of course, I sit around a lot.





A cyclist’s antidote to the winter blues

March 23, 2016


A Winter’s Ride in the Southern Arizona Grasslands

 I love my homeland in the Pacific Northwest, including the mild winter rains, evergreen forests, and rich agricultural valleys. As winter lingers into February, however, I long for warm sunshine and open roads. For eight years I have been satisfying that desire by taking my bicycle to southern Arizona. A week of hard riding through the “Sky Islands” of the high desert grasslands southeast of Tucson seems just right as antidote to the winter blues.

Vigorous cycling with congenial friends renews a sense of physical wellbeing, and traveling slowly through this distinctive environment stimulates ever wider contemplations upon life in our time.

My 2016 ride combined two features. The cycling itself was the Historic Hotels Tour offered by PAC Tour, the touring company operated by Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo who have been noted long-distance cyclists for more than 30 years. We traveled from Tucson to Sonoita, Tombstone, Bisbee, Douglas, the Kartchner Caverns, Benson, and back to Tucson.

My contemplations were shaped by one of the most hopeful books I’ve read for some time—Stitching the West Back Together, edited by a team of experts on the challenges facing the Desert Southwest. I’ve written a 6,800-word essay outlining the tour and my contemplations prompted by the book and the things I saw.

One of my goals in the essay is to explain why open road cyclists enjoy long, challenging rides like these.

Another purpose is to describe two watershed-wide ventures in the high grasslands southeast of Tucson and another venture that is responding creatively to the tendencies toward urban sprawl around the city itself. All three illustrate the principle of working from the radical center that is a theme of the book I’ve been reading.

Friends who have read the essay say that it is interesting. My roommate for the week says that it reads like an essay from The New Yorker—maybe too strong a commendation, but I’ll take it, anyway.

To read the essay, click Winter’s Ride 2


A baked land of chaotic hills and valleys

March 10, 2015
A Dry Wash near the San Pedro River

A Dry Wash near the San Pedro River

The annual Desert Training Camp for 2015, conducted by Pacific Atlantic Cycle Tours (PAC Tour), began with the Historic Hotels Tour during the last week of February. This year marked the twentieth season that PAC Tour has conducted a winter training program in the Southern Arizona desert.

In addition to Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangela, owners of PAC Tour and record setting ultra marathon cyclists in their earlier years, two participants in the 2015 Historic Hotels tour participated in that first Desert Training Camp twenty years ago. A member of this year’s crew had been Lon’s training partner even before the PAC Tour company was organized to train long distance cyclists and has ridden or been crew on 40,000 PAC Tour miles. One of the cyclists registered as a rider for the inaugural week in 1996 and he has participated in Desert Training Camp for seventeen of its twenty years.

The first season was only one week long, and its emphasis was upon the middle word in its title: Desert Training Camp. It was pitched toward young cyclists still in active training for competitive events, especially long distance rides. Well-known coaches and trainers were part of the attraction, and daily rides included practicing techniques such as riding in pace lines. Since Lon and Susan were still in their thirties, their own exploits on bicycles were clearly part of the draw.

When I first read about these weeks in the Arizona desert, the descriptions emphasized the training opportunities, which was one of the reasons why this program attracted my attention. By that time, the winter program had been extended to more weeks and the clientele had begun to change: fewer young racers and an increasing number of middle aged touring cyclists who could ride 100 miles a day, although in a recreational rather than competitive mode. The continuing emphasis upon fast, long distance touring was the primary reason I chose PAC Tour when I decided to try riding with a touring company rather than exclusively as a solo cyclist.

The Historic Hotels Tour for 2015 shows the full transformation from hard racing to recreational touring. Daily mileage for the week ranged from 47 to 67. Twenty-seven cyclists were registered: six in their 30s and 40s, six in their 50s, eleven in their 60s, and four in their 70s and 80s. Twelve were women. Nearly half of the riders had done previous trips with PAC Tour, while others were riding with Lon and Susan for the first time.

Half or more of the group were confident that they could handle the distances, while others were apprehensive, two or three because they had done very little cycling like this and several others because they were overcoming injury or were uneasy about their current level of physical readiness for rides this length. Susan, and the other members of the support staff reassured riders that they would do all that they could to help us enjoy the week cycling through this high, dry plateau in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert,” a “land of little rain,” to use Mary Austin’s descriptive phrase. Read more….Baked Land of Chaotic Hills and Valleys


Fairbank, Arizona

Fairbank, Arizona

Desert Training Camp One More Time

February 21, 2015

Arizona Sunrise

Since 2009 my winter schedule of activities has included a week of bicycling in southern Arizona. These rides have been conducted by PAC Tour—Pacific Atlantic Cycling Tours. The company is operated by Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo, husband and wife, who have long been central figures in intense, long distance cycling.

I first met Lon in the 1970s at a McDonald’s restaurant on the western edge of Columbus, Ohio. My teenage son Mike and I had spent Mother’s Day weekend cycling the 210-mile Tour of the Scioto River Valley—TOSRV—and were driving back home. Lon was already a celebrated figure among cyclists because of his major role in developing the recently established Race Across America—RAAM—and he had been guest of honor at that year’s TOSRV.

Lon’s name had drawn my attention to PAC Tour’s Desert Training Camp several years before I started riding with them. If I ever decide to ride with a touring company, I thought, PAC Tour would be the one to try.

The time did come when it became clear that my family and friends, and I myself, would feel more at ease if I were to transition from long solo trips to multi-day rides that included other people.

If done right, I told myself, these rides would be fun. These weeks with PAC Tour would acquaint me with parts of Arizona with which I was unfamiliar. I would meet interesting people. I would learn things about cycling and traveling by bike that I would not learn in any other way.

JulianWash in Tucson

JulianWash in Tucson

This next week will be my 7th or 8th trip with PAC Tour, and my hopes have been realized. The rides have been physically and mentally challenging. Friendships have been established with crewmembers and cyclists alike, and each year’s ride is like a reunion. I have experienced this part of Arizona in a new way. My abilities as a cyclist have been extended. These are the reasons I keep coming back.

This is the third time that I have come to Desert Training Camp thinking that it might be my last time. The fact is that at 83 years of age, I’m having trouble doing these rides at the level that satisfies my personal criteria. Like it or not (and I don’t like it), I’m aging out of PAC Tour rides. The rigor that drew me to this company in the first place is now pointing out that aging has its challenges that cannot be avoided.

This year’s ride still seems within my range. The daily distances range from 40 to 60 miles, just over half of the daily distance expected on some of the other weeks and events that PAC Tour sponsors. We’ll spend two consecutive nights in the same hotel in mid-week, which means that cyclists can take a day off if it will help them enjoy the week.

So, once again, here I am at Desert Training Camp for the last time. One reason for coming is that I really want to stay a night or two at the Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee. Another reason is that I’m working on a book—Body Dissolving, Spirit Strong as Always: Open Road Cycling for People Past Seventy—and I hope that conversations this week will help me along.

There’s one more reason for doing this ride again. For much of this past year I have been dealing with chronic leg pains. My doctor and friends have helped me understand that the probable cause is muscular imbalance, but so far the course of action recommended has been less effective than I would like. A few days ago I found a book that gives the detailed explanation that I need and proposes a regimen of progressively more challenging stretches that strengthen the muscular core of a person’s body.

I’m reading the book and practicing the exercises. My hope is that conversations with other mature cyclists this week will push me forward in my new daily stretching pattern so that when I get home in mid-March, after this ride and a period of research, writing, and riding near Claremont, California, I will be on the way to the pain-free cycling I remember from earlier years.

Yellow Trailer

Open road cycling for people past 70

December 27, 2014

First in a series on bicycling my way through 2014

On the River Road South of Corvallis, Oregon

On the River Road South of Corvallis, Oregon

“Your cycling journals are different!” This was Susan Notorangelo’s response to my 20-page essay on a week’s ride with PAC Tour, the travel company that she and her husband Lon Haldeman have conducted for about 30 years. I’m not sure what she meant, but think that she was surprised by the way description, historical background, and personal interpretation are intertwined in my travel narratives.

During the 40 years of my aggressive adult cycling, I’ve written 15 to 20 of these accounts, some only a few pages in length and others as long as 40 pages. Two of them describe the solo cross country trip that I did in the spring before I turned 70, and several describe rides that I’ve done with PAC Tour, including the 1,100 mile Albuquerque—Grand Canyon and Return ride in 2010.

At the beginning of 2014, one of my writing goals was to revise 8 to 10 of these later travel narratives and meld them into a book with the working title Open Road Cycling for People Past 70.

During the early months of 2014 I was in the final stages of completing a book on religion in America (published in November; click here for more information). As soon as that manuscript was approved by the publisher, I began serious work on the cycling book. At the same time, my wife’s 8 years of living with cancer entered a new phase that imposed a different plan for the second half of the year. For several months the bicycling book has languished, but early in 2015 I plan to resume my work on this project.

In its current form, the book has an Introduction and 9 chapters: Dry Lands on the Southern Tour, Wet Lands on the Southern Tour, *Bicycling through Time on the Wilderness Road, Columbia Gorge Explorers, Reengineering the Engineered World, *Bicycling Along George Washington’s Rivers, *Sky Island Soliloquy, *Traveling through the Open Windows of Time, and Learning to Ride at a Gentler Pace. An appendix contains my counsel about bikes, equipment, and cycling strategies for cyclists in their 70s and 80s.

Earlier versions of the above titles marked with * are posted on the Bicycle Diaries page of this blog.

The last two or three chapters need more work in order for this first phase of editing to be completed. Then will come a second editorial phase which will help determine whether these chapters can be melded into a book with a coherent thesis that ties them together or if they remain a set of individual travel narratives.

I intend to write the first draft of a publishing proposal by mid February when I am registered for week one of PAC Tour’s Desert Training Camp 2015. There are 27 registered riders, plus a crew of 9, and we’ll be cycling 50 to 60 miles a day on a tour of historic hotels in southern Arizona.

The proposal, which will consist of 100-word summaries of the book’s thesis and each of the chapters, will serve as (1) a guide for revising the manuscript; (2) a way of soliciting evaluations and suggestions from representative cyclists in target audiences, especially from my PAC Tour companions, and (3) the first step in looking for editorial counsel and a publisher.

In all probability, I’ll post the revised proposal on this blog so that a wider circle of readers can comment on the shape the book is taking.

Happy cycling in 2015.

Borderlands Bicycle Tour

February 8, 2013


High fog, 33 degrees! Just the morning to think about my annual week of bicycling in the warm winter sun of southern Arizona!

This year’s tour will travel through border towns: Nogales, Patagonia, Sonoita, Bisbee, Douglas, Tombstone, Sierra Vista, and Tucson. As I drink my Peet’s coffee, looking out at Portland’s bleak sky, one thing is clear: I have to spend the rest of the month in serious training—of my legs and lungs, and also my heart and mind.

Long ago I decided that one way to build coherence into my travels is to focus attention on two or three themes that are illuminated by the places through which I ride. For a retired academic like me, that means reading up on places where I’ll be cycling. Guidebooks help a little. Even better are materials that discuss the history and culture of the region. This kind of study helps me understand and more fully appreciate what I see while riding along through unfamiliar countryside.

For this year’s trip, “Border to Border” (week two of PAC Tour’s Desert Camp for 2013) my reading will explore three themes.

Eusebio Kino, S.J., and the chain of missions he established in the Sonoran Desert between 1685 and 1704. The three northernmost sites are strung along the road between Tucson and Nogales: San Xavier del Bac (still functioning as a parish church for the Tohono O’odham Indian Nation, Tucumcacori (for more than a century a National Historical Site), and Guevavi. Although I have owned books about this system of missions for well over a decade, the time has come actually to read them, and I’m making a little progress.

An ever greater need, however, is to learn more about Kino himself, and with the help of Powells Books in Portland, two volumes are on their way. Because this reading connects my two blogging interests, American Religion and Aggressive Cycling, my background reading will likely influence columns on both sides of keithwatkinshistorian during the next few weeks.

Nabhan - RainPre-industrial Patterns of agriculture in the Sonoran Desert. When Spanish conquistadores and priests traveled northward through the desert in the 1500s and 1600s, they discovered thriving indigenous civilizations that were well adapted to the arid climate. The interweaving of mission agriculture and Native American development of a food supply is an important part of the history and culture of this part of the world.

My guide to this topic is Gary Paul Nabhan, whose academic career at the University of Arizona has focused upon the ethnobotany of the region. Some of his books, most of them at least half read, are on my shelf, and I hope to pick them up again.

Although Nabhan grew up in Gary, Indiana, his family is Arab/American, with continuing family connections in the Middle Eastern deserta. His interest is scientific and cultural, and he has spent most of his adult life in close communion with desert people, especially the Tohono O’odham (referred to in some of the literature as the desert Papago).

Nabham also was instrumental in establishing one of the most interesting organizations dealing with food and nutrition. Based in Tucson, it goes by the name Native Seeds/SEARCH. This organization specializes in preserving indigenous fruits and vegetables and also food-producing plants and trees brought by early Spanish colonizers that have since become indigenized.

In cooperation with the Nature Conservancy, Native Seeds/SEARCH maintains its own farm near Patagonia where it cultivates many of the seed crops that it conserves and keeps alive. I hope to visit the farm on this year’s tour as I bicycle along the Nogales-Sonoita Road.

LoganThe Lessening Streams. The critical issue in sustaining life in arid lands is the availability and effective use of water. One source of supply is the river system, which in the northern reaches of the Sonoran Desert consists of tributaries of the Gila River (itself, a tributary of the Colorado). In preparation for last year’s tour, I bought The Lessening Stream: An Environmental History of the Santa Cruz River by Michael F. Logan, professor of history at Oklahoma State University, whose family homesteaded near this river in the 1880s.

I read the first 50 pages last year and now must try to read the 200 remaining pages. One reviewer of the book describes it as  “one of the finest studies of the history of a particular watershed that I have read.”

There’s much to read in the next two weeks as I train my mind for “Border to Border.” And, of course, the bodily side of training, already much neglected in this wet Northwestern winter, has to be intensified soon.

These next three weeks will be filled to overflowing.


PAC Tour and the Butterfield Stage Company

February 17, 2012

Across the desert southwest, signs commemorating the Butterfield Stage Company connect modern travelers with the transportation history of western United States. Beginning in 1858, the company owned by John Butterfield carried mail and passengers on regularly scheduled stage coaches from El Paso, Texas, to Messela, New Mexico, and then across New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California.

In the southeastern corner of Arizona, the Butterfield route departed from the trail blazed by the Mormon Battalion. Instead of going south of the border of what would become Mexico, Butterfield stages traveled north of the Chiricahua Mountains, through Apache Pass, and threaded their way around mountainous outcroppings to the San Pedro River near the modern towns of St. David and Benson.

From that point onward across Arizona the new stage company followed the route alternately called Cooke’s Wagon Road and the Gila Trail. At Tucson, the stage route kept near the Santa Cruz River, which in those days enjoyed a fairly steady (although modest) flow of water, past Maricopa Wells and the Pima Villages. It then turned westward, traveling across an unwatered section of desert until it reached the Gila River as it traveled its final 200 miles to the Colorado River at Fort Yuma.

For the most part, this route provided hard surfaces and gentle grades, which may be the reason it was used by the Southern Pacific Railroad which little more than a decade later established a secure transportation system across this vast, empty, challenging region.

Two legs of PAC Tour’s Cactus Classic bicycle tour, which starts on February 18, 2012, follow this routing. The Santa Cruz River has largely disappeared, but in its stead, the old railroad and the newer Interstate 10 will be nearby.

In contrast to the Butterfield travelers, however, we will have the benefit of paved roads, motel beds at night, and a steady supply of food and water. Although we will cycle through or near four Indian reservations—San Xavier, Ak-chin, Gila River, and Tohono O’odham—we won’t need to be on guard because of the constant threat of armed conflict that always troubled the people who traveled by stage coach 150 years ago.

Until reading Odie B. Faulk’s Destiny Road: The Gila Trail and the Opening of the Southwest, I had little understanding of the immensity of the challenge that Butterfield and his partners (who included William G. Fargo) faced in order to make their stage company operative. Not only did they have to determine the exact route, but they also had to establish way stations all along this stretched-out, largely unpopulated territory. Where possible, they contracted with local farmers to provide basic services, but in many places they had to build their own way stations of adobe or mud. They cut paths down steep embankments when streams could be forded, and arranged for ferries at other locations.

When fully operational, Butterfield had some 800 employees and used 1,000 horses, 700 mules, 800 sets of harnesses, and 250 stagecoaches and spring wagons. The full-bodied stagecoach, as seen in western paintings and movies, Faulk writes, weighed 3,000 pounds, could seat nine passengers inside and “as many as could pile on top.” It could carry 4,000 pounds and cost $1,400. The wagons didn’t have springs, but their bodies “rocked on leather straps, called thoroughbraces, which were stitched three and one-half inches wide.”

The stages averaged five miles an hour and covered 120 miles a day, 2,800 miles in twenty-five days or less. In order to describe what travelers could expect to eat, Faulk quotes from a 1935 book by William Tallack:

The fare though rough, is better than could be expected so far from civilized districts, and consists of bread, tea, and fried steaks of bacon, venison, antelope, o mule flesh—the latter tough enough. Milk, butter, and vegetables can only be met with towards the two ends of the route—that is, in California and at the ‘stations’ in the settled parts of the Mississippi Valley.

Although PAC Tour cyclists travel on their own two-wheeled steeds instead of in or on the coaches, their hosts, Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo, accompany them with modern counterparts to the prairie schooners of long ago. PAC Tour’s two large vans, each with its custom trailer, carry the cyclists’ gear, repair facilities, and a large inventory of bicycle parts and components. Every twenty-five or thirty miles one of the vans sets up a rest and meal stop, complete with places to sit while enjoying the kind of food and drink that helps cyclists stay on the road.

Butterfield and Company are fine for the movies. In real life, I vote for PAC Tour.