The Headwind

April in central Illinois is a bitch. Other months are windy, but April is always the worst. This makes for some challenging bike rides.

Clearly it’s very nice when you have a tailwind, but you can’t do an entire ride with the wind at your back if you have any intention of ending up back where you started. The strong crosswinds are just downright dangerous in that there are times that you really think you’re going to be blown right over. You really want to minimize the amount of time you’re in a crosswind like this.

Then there’s the headwind. Oh, the headwind. It’s demoralizing to see a group of 20 strong bicyclists struggling to maintain 13 mph riding directly into a 25 mph (gusting to 40 mph) headwind. Sadly, this has been the situation on the last 10 or so long rides I’ve done this April.

And then there was this weekend. Somehow I (along with two others) showed up at the wrong time for the Saturday ride, so the three of us headed out to Monitcello (50 mile round trip) straight into a powerful west wind. The first few miles seemed to go on for an eternity.

Monticello Ride Map

On Sunday the situation was slightly better in that there were four of us total, but it was slightly worse in that two of those riders were really fast and made the ride even more difficult. I’m not sure how much more I can take.

On the bright side I set a new speed record two weeks ago on the way back from Pesotum when I hit 39.8 mph on flat land. I’ve definitely ridden faster down steep hills, but never on the flat. Amazingly, the guy I was riding with at the time was going over 40 mph and he pulled away from me. Speed records aside, I’m ready for April to end.

The Bike Hole

(Simpsons episode 2F21)

Homer: Hmm. I wonder why he’s so eager to go to the garage?
Moe: The “garage”? Hey fellas, the “garage”! Well, ooh la di da, Mr. French Man.
Homer: Well what do you call it?
Moe: A car hole!

Since watching this episode of the Simpsons (The Springfield Connection) I have frequently referred to our garage as a car hole. It wasn’t until more recently that I realized our car is seriously outnumbered by bikes, and under the circumstances it would be more accurate to call it a bike hole.

Anyway, I spent most of the day Saturday cleaning the bike hole (including unpacking a few boxes that have been sitting in the middle of the floor since we moved in last August).

The Elephant

(Simpsons episode 5F04)

Bart: Wow, I wish I had an elephant!
Lisa: You did, his name was Stampy, you loved him.
Bart: Oh yeah…

Apparently the circus is in town

I rode home from work last night on the same route I ride every night when I noticed an unusual smell near the University of Illinois Assembly Hall. I looked over to my right and there were two elephants being hosed down in the parking lot about 20 meters away from me. That explains the smell. It appears the circus has come to town.

Two elephants in the Assembly Hall parking lot

The Twike

The Twike on the local news

The local news just ran a segment about a local man who drives a Twike, a bike/electric vehicle hybrid. I’ve seen this vehicle several times around town, generally on campus or traveling down Kirby outside my office window.

The New Shoes

A friend from the local running club sent out a link to an online store which had a good pair of trail racing flats (running shoes) on clearance for a bargain. What the hell, I’ll always need shoes. So I bought some on impulse. Now I have new shoes.

When the shoes arrived I was reminded of Grandad Freeman’s New Shoes song (from the animated TV show The Boondocks). It’s catchy. Melissa was singing it the rest of the day. It was such a hit that he reprised it as the Soul Plane song in a later episode.

Grandad Freeman’s New Shoes song

Grandad Freeman’s Soul Plane song

I wore the new shoes for a short run last week and also did some walking in them. Next it was time for the Habitat for Humanity 5k race at Crystal Lake Park last Sunday.

This was the same venue and course (though backwards) as the last 5k two weeks prior. It must have been the new shoes, because I ran over a minute faster for a time of 18:12. Again, I finished 3rd place, but I was very pleased with my time. This was probably the second fastest 5k race I’ve run since college.

Most 5k races have age group awards split up into 5 year or 10 year intervals (e.g. 20-24, 25-29, 30-34, etc, or 20-29, 30-39). Interestingly this race had three age groups: 25 & under, 26-40, 41 & over. This translated roughly to: college students, townies, parents of college students (it was Mom’s weekend at UIUC). I won first place in the townie division, for which I was awarded a sweatshirt. It would have been nice to have been wearing the sweatshirt during the 30 minutes between the race in 36˚ weather and the awards. Oh well.

The Highest Point in Maryland

On my way back from Washington D.C. last weekend I took the opportunity to knock another state off my list of high-points-to-which-I’ve-bicycled. The previous Friday it was Pennsylvania. Monday it was Maryland’s turn. Backbone Mountain, the state’s high point, is nestled in the far western corner of the state, within walking distance from West Virginia.

I spent a good deal of time studying the area with Google Earth on Sunday night in my hotel room. Oakland, Maryland was the clear choice for my starting point. This was only 25 minutes off I-68. The actual peak is not accessible by any road, so I made due with the highest point on the closest road to the peak (U.S. 50), which was conveniently labelled as the Highest Point on the Maryland State Roads System. Perfect.

I had a little bit more time for this ride than I did a few days prior in Pennsylvania, so I decided to do a slightly longer ride and make it a loop instead of simply turning around once I reached the top. Since I would be riding down the other side of the mountain, this meant that I would actually have to ride back over the mountain a second time on a different road in order to return to my starting point. The temperature was a chilly 39˚ when I started, so I bundled up.

Backbone Mountain ride map

The unfamiliar roads and dense fog made for some interesting navigation challenges. Like Pennsylvania, there were many rolling hills as I started the loop on U.S. 219. Soon after I turned onto U.S. 50 the road turned upward. The climb itself was shorter than Mt. Davis was a few days prior, but it was much steeper. I spent some quality time in my lowest gear moving along at what seemed like a snail’s pace, but I made it. Six states down (TN, NC, KY, HI, PA, MD), 44 to go.

Rob at the top of Backbone Mountain

Plaque at the top of Backbone Mountain on U.S. 50

I descended the mountain, turned a corner, then started going back up it again, only this time I was on a different road. The second climb seemed roughly the same length and steepness as the first, though it was even foggier. Again I spent much time in my lowest gear. From the top I coasted most of the rest of the way back to Oakland.

Backbone Mountain ride elevation profile

Once back in town I picked up a 12″ veggie sub on wheat bread with pepper jack cheese, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, pickles, green peppers, & black pepper from Subway. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize until I was driving out of town that the “lemonade” was actually some kind of disgusting carbonated junk instead. I think they must have had some hoses crossed in the fountain machine.

It was a nine hour drive back to Urbana from there. Interestingly, an hour or so later the temperature in West Virginia was around 70˚ and I was actually hot for most of the rest of the trip.

High Point Ride Information
Date: 2008-04-07 9:52 AM EDT
State: Maryland
High Point: Backbone Mountain
Elevation: 3095 feet
Climb Distance: 1.14 miles
Climb Ascent: 469 feet
Climb Average Grade: 7.8%
Climb Maximum Grade: 12%
Ride Distance: 26.8 miles
Ride Total Ascent: 2656 feet
Ride Maximum Speed: 38 miles/hour
Ride Start: Oakland, MD (2372 feet)
Ride End: Oakland, MD (2372 feet)

The Air and Space Museum

(Simpsons episode CABF05)

Warden: Look, he painted a unicorn in outer space. I’m askin’ ya, what’s it breathin’?
Homer: Air?
Warden: Ain’t no air in space!
Homer: There’s an air n’ space museum.

When I was younger I wanted to be a pilot and astronaut. This wasn’t just my answer to the question of “What do you want to be when you grow up, little boy?” I really wanted to be a pilot and astronaut. Every Monday night my dad & I would watch Wings, a show on Discovery channel that each week chronicled a different type of aircraft. I watched them all. I spent hours reading encyclopedias (remember those reference books that existed before the internet) about every single NASA space mission that had taken place. I had it all memorized. I hoped that one day I too would have the right stuff. My career ambitions may have changed over the years, but my fascination with flight and space flight remain. Needless to say, the National Air and Space Museum provided me with hours and hours of (free) enjoyment.

I woke up late last Sunday morning in D.C. after getting to bed late following the ASP reunion. I was planning to leave D.C. early that afternoon so I didn’t intend to spend much time at the museum, maybe an hour or two. Melissa & I toured the museum extensively when we were there in 2003, so I figured there probably wasn’t as much to see the second time around. I was wrong. My hour or two trip ballooned into four or five hours once I was within the museum’s walls. I covered every inch of the museum, aside from the National Treasures exhibit which inexplicably had a one hour wait.

There were many oldies but goodies. As soon as you walk in the door you are greeted by the Apollo 11 command module. The first humans to walk on the moon used this spacecraft to return to earth. Hanging just above that is the Sprit of St. Louis, the first aircraft to fly non-stop across the atlantic ocean.

Apollo 11 Command Module

Sprit of St. Louis

There were some new items added to the museum in the past five years. They added a test unit of one of the recent Mars rovers. Two similar rovers landed on mars in 2004 and are still performing experiments to this day. They also added SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded civilian spacecraft to carry a human into space (also in 2004).

Mars rover


Then there were the interesting artifacts I new a lot about in the past, but had completely forgotten. Among them were the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, a joint USA/USSR space mission in the 1970’s where astronauts & cosmonauts docked their spacecrafts together (and presumably had some kind of party). Then there was Skylab, the first attempt at a space station by the USA (also in the 1970’s) that fell back to earth (nobody was aboard at the time) and crashed in Australia. Whoops.

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (right), Hubble telescope (backup unit, on left)

Skylab (backup unit, covered in gold foil)

Finally, something particularly interesting to me is the Gossamer Condor. This is a 70 pound bicycle with wings that was the first human powered machine to sustain flight. A similar machine to this crossed the English channel a few years later. I have a decent power to weight ratio, I could totally fly that thing :)

Gossamer Condor

So I stayed quite a bit longer than I intended. It was no problem. I returned to my quarters then departed D.C. late in the afternoon. My next stop was western Maryland, where a certain mountain awaited my arrival.

The Reunion

Last weekend in Washington D.C. there was a reunion of former ASP summer staff members. I worked for the Appalachia Service Project during the summers of 1997-2000 while I was in college. Around 75 former staffers descended upon the nation’s capital (well, a number of them already live there) for festivities.

ASP Summer Staff 1998 (I’m the one in the bright yellow shirt)

After a 12 hour drive (and a one hour bike ride) I arrived at the Potter’s House bookstore and cafe for some live bluegrass music. As soon as I walked in I recognized four or five familiar friendly faces… and about 30 very unfamiliar ones. Has it been that long?

I scanned the store and noticed my former staffer Jill on the other side of the room. The way ASP works is there is a separate center in each of 20 or 25 counties throughout central Appalachia. Each center is run by four staffers. Jill & I worked together at the same center in the summer of 1999. Great, I thought, I’ll go say hello.

Jill & Rob in 1999

As I walked about half way across the room I took another look, then I stopped in my tracks. Wait a minute… that’s not Jill… is it? She looks like she hasn’t aged at all. My confusion was further compounded when she made eye contact with me and showed absolutely no sign of recognition. This was a person I worked with very closely for several months, what’s going on???

While I was standing there, not knowing what to do, Phoebe walked by and I asked her if that was Jill. No. It was Jill’s younger sister, who looks exactly like Jill, and who apparently also worked for ASP. Well, that solves that mystery. The real Jill was present at the banquet on Saturday night. We had a good chance to catch up a little. She is finishing up with medical school and getting married soon. ¡Felicitaciones!

After the long drive and a few hours in the coffee house I was really ready for bed. Will works in D.C. for CEDC, a nonprofit that has dormitories, and he arranged for me (and a few others) to stay there fairly inexpensively. It was nice, and the price couldn’t be beat. I slept in a little Saturday morning before heading downtown to see the monuments.

In the afternoon, the event organizers planned a service project at the Capital Area Food Bank. Around 20 or so of us from ASP helped unbox bulk canned foods and reorganize and repackage them for distribution to individuals and food kitchens. It was a good time. I used the opportunity to get to know some of the younger people who were on staff in the years following me. Interestingly, a few of them already knew who I was. You get bonus points if you can guess how — The Rob Song.

After finishing up at the food bank I got ready and headed over to the banquet on the other side of town. During my cross town trip I encountered four roundabouts (traffic circles). Fantastic. Anyone who knows me knows that I love roundabouts. I believe they are the greatest traffic control device in existence. The problem is that D.C. has the worst roundabouts I’ve ever seen (in the U.S., Nicaragua, France, or Belgium). Typically, traffic entering the roundabout has to yield to traffic already in the roundabout, but traffic in the roundabout should keep moving. Not only did these D.C. roundabouts have stop lights (rather than yield signs) upon entering the circle, they also had stoplights inside the circle itself. ¡Que terrible! So instead of none of the traffic stopping ever, all of the traffic stopped multiple times. This is how the first three roundabouts were. When I reached the fourth roundabout, it was normal (no stop lights, no stopping). Traffic moved so much more smoothly and safely through the fourth roundabout. I cannot possibly fathom why the first three were so messed up.

Once I got to the reunion banquet I saw many more familiar faces. There were a couple dozen people whose employment with ASP overlapped mine. One of the first people I saw was Ben, who immediately asked me “were you ever on stage during a Steve Jobs keynote?” That came out of nowhere. Yes, I was on stage during Steve Jobs’ 2005 WWDC keynote presentation. My boss (Theo) & I demonstrated Mathematica running on the just announced Intel based Mac computers. Ben watched the video of the keynote (here’s the relevant clip), recognized me, and remembered to ask me about it the next time he saw me (three years later). Funny.

Besides Jill, my only other former staffer (with whom I worked closely) at the reunion was Meryl (a.k.a. Marl, who was recently married). We too had a good chance to catch up with each other (though we didn’t get the chance to reenact our infamous, no holds barred wrestling matches).

Rob stuffs Meryl into a trash can in 2000

Meryl gets her revenge

Some poor, innocent bystander gets caught in the middle

The banquet was a really good time.

  • We ate Appalachian food (whatever that is).
  • We viewed a wonderful slideshow of old ASP photos.
  • A preselected representative of each decade (70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 00’s) shared some of their fondest ASP memories. Michelle K. (from my decade, the 90’s) did an exceptional job.
  • We sang a few of the songs we used to sing on a daily basis while working for ASP. It was a little emotional.
  • There was an auction of memorabilia to benefit ASP. I ended up with a really neat framed photograph of a curvy mountain road. I like mountains.
  • There was a contest to guess the number of skittles in a jar. Michelle R. & I both guessed 1200, which was the closest to the actual count of 1106. For this we won the skittles, which she yielded to me. Fortunately, the rest of the group helped pare that number down a little before we left.

After the official reunion ended, the unofficial reunion moved to some bar in an extremely busy area of D.C. I should have planned a little better, but I didn’t, and I ended up driving there. I searched for 25 minutes to find a parking place and I ended up in the tightest spot in which I’ve ever parked (and remember Iris is a very small car).

We all got a little carried away chatting it up with old friends. I ended up getting back to my quarters at 3:30 am. I haven’t stayed up that late in many a year. Juech was planning to run the Cherry Blossom 10 mile race at 7:30 am on Sunday. I since found out that he did indeed finish… barely. It was still probably before I even woke up.

The D.C. Monuments

I woke up Saturday morning in D.C. with nothing to do until 1 pm. I grabbed my camera, water bottle, and a Clif Bar, and I headed out. I walked a few blocks to the nearest Metro station and took the subway downtown. I exited the Metro onto the National Mall, which was kind of neat. There I was surrounded by the Capitol, the White House, the Smithsonian museums, the Washington Monument, and tens of thousands of other people.

Melissa & I travelled to D.C. six years ago to run a marathon. We walked around the Mall a bit and saw the Smithsonian Museum of American History, the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, and the Capitol before it was time to leave. So this time I decided to explore the other direction. First I approached the Washington Monument. Immediately I noticed the spring foliage and quickly realized this was the weekend of the national Cherry Blossom festival.

The Washington Monument

The Washington Monument

Next in line was the National World War II Memorial. I didn’t realize until just now when I was geocoding the photos that this memorial is not very old, only about four years. The satellite imagery on Google Earth showed it still under construction.

Incidentally, in case any readers out there haven’t yet noticed, I geocode nearly all photos posted to this blog. If you click on the photo it will load a Picasa Web Album page that includes a map showing where the photo was taken.

The National World War II Memorial

The National World War II Memorial

From there, across the Reflecting Pool was the Lincoln Memorial. During the 1/3 mile walk I began to realize that while these things all appeared to be very close to each other, they were actually quite far apart. No wonder everybody looked so tired from walking.

The Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial

Next was a stroll along the Potomac river, through the Cherry Blossoms towards the Jefferson Monument.

Cherry Blossoms near the Potomac

Last weekend was the National Cherry Blossom Festival

The Jefferson Memorial

The Jefferson Memorial

After that I made my way back to the White House. I really should have done that first, since it was slightly out of my way going back to the Metro station. I was tired of walking at this point, so I didn’t get as close to it as I could have. Thank goodness for telephoto lenses.

The White House

Walking back across the Mall to the Metro station I also took advantage of the telephoto lens to snap a quick pic of the Capitol, which was deceptively far away.

The Capitol Building

On the escalator down to the subway some Metro workers were fiddling with a different escalator that had apparently been acting up. The stopped the wrong one and everybody on my escalator nearly fell over. So that was a bit dangerous. They then started it back up, but going the reverse direction. Everybody nearly fell over again. Finally, they stopped it for good and allowed everyone to walk off before doing any more potential harm.

By this point I was running a little late for my 1 pm engagement, so I hurried back to my quarters. By the time I got home was was already showing signs of sunburn on my forehead. Next time I’ll have to wear a hat, even if it is overcast.

The Highest Point in Pennsylvania

It’s not widely known outside of this household that I have a goal to bicycle to the highest point in all 50 states. Well, at least the highest point that is accessible via bicycle, generally on a paved road. It is a lofty goal indeed, but I’m not super strict about the rules… and I’m not in any huge hurry. I just like riding.

As of last week I had 4 states down, including some big ones (Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, & Hawaii). When I was planning my trip to Washington D.C. this past weekend I took a quick glance at some web sites and saw that Pennsylvania & Maryland had high points that were not very far out of my way (additionally West Virginia, Ohio, & Indiana, but I thought two would suffice for a single weekend). So I took my bike and thought if I had time I would ride them, if not no big deal.

The route from Meyersdale to the summit of Mt. Davis

I drove for nine or so hours by the time I reached Meyersdale, PA, at the foot of Mt. Davis. The weather was nice, and I was sick of driving, so I rode. As I was coming into town I noticed there were many wind generators perched atop the rolling hills. As soon as I stepped out of the car I realized why. It was windy. Really windy. And unfortunately, it was going to be a headwind the entire way up Mt. Davis.

Wind generators near Meyersdale, PA

The elevation of Meyersdale was 1935 ft. and the summit of Mt. Davis is 3213-ish ft. So it was a decent change in elevation, but it was no Mauna Kea. As I began the 10 mile ride to the summit I quickly realized this climb was going to be a little different than many of the previous mountains I have ridden. It was really just one large rolling hill after another. It wasn’t very steep (the average grade was 3.2%, with one short 13% section). There were no switchbacks. The strong headwind made it tough, and I didn’t have the best legs after nine hours of driving, so it was slow going.

A sign directing visitors to Mt. Davis with rolling hills in the background

I rode through lots of farmland and passed many people I assume were Amish. There were several horse drawn buggies and a few diesel powered tractors (diesel is apparently okay for the Amish). Everyone waved and seemed rather friendly.

Towards the top the landscape finally turned from large rolling hills into a real actual climb. It got a little steeper at this point, but it was still managable. There was a picnic area at the summit, a sign indicating the significance of the location, and a short distance away was an observation tower. The wind made walking up the tower stairs an interesting experience, but I survived.

Rob at the summit of Mt. Davis, PA

View of Meyersdale, PA from observation tower at summit of Mt. Davis

Mt. Davis ride elevation profile

The long, straight roads and strong tailwind allowed for some fast descending. At one point I passed a group of Amish children who all waved to me as I sped past at 35 mph. When I returned to Meyersdale, I packed up my bike, got back in the car, and drove the remaining three hours to D.C. It was a good way to break up the monotony of driving such a long distance in one day.

High Point Ride Information
Date: 2008-04-04 3:19 PM EDT
State: Pennsylvania
High Point: Mt. Davis
Elevation: 3213 feet
Climb Distance: 3.5 miles
Climb Ascent: 1010 feet
Climb Average Grade: 5.4%
Climb Maximum Grade: 13%
Ride Distance: 19.4 miles
Ride Total Ascent: 1973 feet
Ride Maximum Speed: 45.7 miles/hour
Ride Start: Meyersdale, PA (1935 feet)
Ride End: Meyersdale, PA (1935 feet)