Category Archives: Backroads

A Velo Girl’s Christmas Confession

This touching story is for those who don’t “do” Christmas in a traditional way, but find their own way to celebrate the spirit of the season. It’s written by my friend Lorri Lee Lown, founder of the Velo Girls women’s cycling club and Savvy Bike coaching services. Through Velo Girls, I led my first group ride, completed my first bike races, and learned the bike skills I still use every day. I would not be the rider I am today without Lorri’s vision and personal commitment bringing riders together and helping them achieve their goals. This is Lorri’s story.

I’ve been lying to everyone and it’s time to make amends. You see, when asked about Christmas, I always tell folks I “don’t do” Christmas. And that’s true. I don’t celebrate the holiday in a traditional way. I don’t have family, so I don’t feel obligated to participate in any dreaded family get-togethers. I haven’t purchased a single gift nor have I mailed even one card. There are no candles in the window nor carols at the spinet. And I’ve lived this way for close to two decades.

But the reality is, I really do love Christmas. Besides the stress that surrounds the holiday, I have some lovely memories of big family dinners, Christmas Eve midnight mass, our annual Christmas choir concert featuring “O Holy Night,” and Christmas morning with all the grandchildren. I used to decorate a tree each year and I still have a box of ornaments (in storage) that I collected in the first 30 years of my life. I used to send out hundreds of Christmas cards. I used to bake dozens of cookies for family, friends, and co-workers. I even used to host a Christmas caroling party. So, what happened? How did I become the girl who didn’t “do Christmas?”

Ornaments 2

The transition happened gradually, shortly before I moved to California in 1998. My grandmother, who had been the anchor of many of our family traditions, passed away. My father picked up the reins and we started some new traditions without her. And then my father died. And then I moved to California. The first winter I lived here, I travelled home to upstate New York for the holiday. It was just me, my mother, and my sister (who also used to live in CA). My other sister had estranged herself from the family, and, as the mother of the only grandchildren in the family, she deprived us of sharing the experience with children. So we went from a two-day celebration filled with tons of family and friends to a depressing week where my mother didn’t get out of bed, my sister drank 2 bottles of wine each night, and I started to hate the holiday that I had always loved. Although my mother lived another five years after this, that was my last Christmas in New York.

The following year, I started riding a bicycle. I hooked up with three other riders (all training for the California AIDS Ride) and we rode together for 4 days over the Christmas holiday. We called ourselves the “Christmas Orphans.” We each had a different story, but what we shared was the fact that we were alone for the holidays and that we all rode a bike. On Christmas morning 1999, we rode a 30-mile route in San Francisco. We continued to be friends and this ride became a holiday tradition. Over the years, the other three moved on to other traditions, I continued on, and today marked the 15th Annual Christmas Orphans’ Tour of San Francisco. In these 15 years, I’ve only missed twice: once when we cancelled due to torrential rain and wind and once when I was recovering from surgery.

Orphan Ride Group Shot

One year, there were only 2 of us on the ride (it was pouring rain). One year, there were close to 100 riders (thanks to a calendar listing from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Everyone comes from a different place, many of them with connections to me, and they share the desire to participate in a fun, social ride on Christmas morning. And, no matter what size the group, we bring smiles to the faces of all who see us, dressed in Santa hats, elf costumes, and riding decorated bikes.

The Christmas Orphans’ Tour of San Francisco is a unique ride. It’s not a long ride, totaling just 29 miles. It’s not a hard ride, with less than 1,500’ of climbing. It’s not a fast ride, since we keep the group together (no matter how slow the slowest rider is) and we stop to enjoy the view, take photos, and maybe even have a cup of hot chocolate. It’s a social ride where old friends and new friends get to see the city in a new way. On Christmas morning, when everyone else is sitting around their Christmas tree, you can see the random art in the city – the murals and mosaics, the sculpture and the architecture, and, on a clear day like today, the amazing views of the bay, the bridges, and the ocean.

Alyson & Lorri Golden Gate Bridge

It’s been fascinating to see how our beautiful city has changed in the past 15 years. The infrastructure for bikes has improved dramatically. The ballpark was built and has changed names a couple of times. Parts of the city have been developed while other parts have become less desirable. I’ve noticed more folks are out and about running, bicycling, surfing, and walking (today’s beautiful weather definitely contributed to this). And I still see the homeless, the needy, and the hopeful on street corners and hidden in the nooks and crannies of the city.

So, my reality is that I DO celebrate Christmas. And I DO give gifts. My gift is bringing together random strangers and friends to share in this amazing experience. I give folks who might be alone the opportunity to spend time with others. I give folks who don’t celebrate Christmas something to do on a day when many folks are busy with family. I give myself the opportunity to continue a tradition that has been very meaningful for me. And the other riders give me the opportunity to share this with them.

It’s amazing to me that I’ve continued this tradition for 15 years. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything else in my entire life for 15 years. But then again, I’ve never loved anything or anyone the way I love my bike. And love is actually what traditions like Christmas are all about.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Thank you, Lorri, for sharing your story. For those who live in the San Francisco Bay Area (or willing to travel there) who want to improve their basic bike skills or for women who want to learn to road race, check out Lorri’s 2014 schedule of skills clinics, Alpine Altitude Adventure training camp and Tri-Flow race training program.

Story and ride photos used with permission of Lorri Lee Lown.


Posted by on December 26, 2013 in Backroads


A Ride 2 Recovery, a Ride to Transformation

For most of us, the challenges of bicycling lead to growth as cyclists: climbing that long and steep grade to bag a peak, staying balanced and pedaling on through a technical section of trail, taking a deep breath and merging into traffic on a busy road. But for some, bicycling takes them beyond growth and into transformation.

For the men and women who serve in armed forces, being strong and capable–physically, mentally and emotionally–to meet the challenges of battle is core to not only their job, but to their identity. To be wounded and permanently lose capabilities is a life crisis for anyone. For warriors, the wounds can run much deeper.

Through cycling, Ride 2 Recovery “makes a difference in the lives of healing heroes by providing life changing experiences that can help speed up the recovery and rehabilitation process.” A few weeks ago, one of their challenge rides came through my area. I rolled out early to see them off on their 450 mile ride from the Bay Area to Los Angeles County. It was awe-inspiring to see these wounded warriors on their amazing adaptive bicycles.

Wounded Warrior 2 short

Ride 2 Recovery designs and builds custom adaptive bikes that it make it possible for almost any injured veteran to participate in the program, including para- and quadriplegics and multiple-limb amputees. The bikes allow them to move under their own power to challenge themselves physically. The ride challenge program allows them to set individual goals while working in a group, and also helps them accept help when needed.

Low Rider Curb Drop

Out of respect for their privacy, I didn’t talk to any of the injured veterans about their challenges: why they decided to do it, what were the biggest hurdles, how it’s changed them so far, what’s next for them. But we don’t need to know the details, do we? Even as outsiders we can imagine it was physically and emotionally hard every step of the way, and that the rewards are boundless, and that the experience is transformative.

I cannot imagine that these wounded warriors see themselves in quite the same way after learning to ride a bike again as a double above-the-knee amputee or after being blinded–or both.

I was honored to have the opportunity to see them gather for the start of their 7-day challenge, and was humbled as I struggled to catch the group after it sped down Foothill Expressway. After seven miles I finally caught them, only to silently bid them adieu and wish them farewell on their long journey south.

What were your biggest challenges in bicycling? Has bicycling fundamentally changed your understanding of self, your beliefs, your life? Has bicycling been transformative for you?

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Posted by on November 12, 2013 in Backroads


From Far and Wide, Ladies Ride, Ride, Ride!

To anyone out there who still thinks bicycling is a just young man’s sport, guess again. Women loves bikes. Even “women of a certain age” whose parenting is more about waving goodbye to college-bound kids or sharing holiday recipes than changing diapers or back to school nights. Sometimes all it takes to get them on the road is a little encouragement, like having a friend to ride with. Point them to a fun group ride and they’ll ride in like the cavalry.


That was what I discovered (yet again) last weekend on a women’s ride hosted by the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. I had heard the organizer Candice wasn’t really sure if she’d have four or 40 women show up. Since she recruited at least a half dozen helpers, her low estimate was too conservative. So was her high estimate. I counted 50 just before we divided into three groups and headed across downtown San Jose. Our destination: the old port town of Alviso, a 20 mile roundtrip via the Guadalupe River Trail.

I rolled out with a faster group of about a dozen led by Marnie, a charity ride junkie who spins a yarn as fast as she spins her wheels. We stopped for the lowdown on the sights along the way, from the “Hands” mural on the parking garage at San Jose Airport to the site of the Lupe the Mammoth fossil unearthed on the river a decade ago to the cannery and salt flats at Old Alviso.

The ride was a delightful spin on a lovely day filled with female camaraderie. But like many events, it was the after-party that made the news. Instead of taking us back to the fountain plaza where we started, Marnie led us straight to her house in Naglee Park where recovery drinks and food were waiting. For this demographic, that means wine, fruit and cheese. No one complained about the change in direction.

Relaxing on Patio

As we chatted over our recovery drinks, I learned more about the wide range of women in my group. Many were local to San Jose, but others had trekked in from the Peninsula and East Bay. Some were new to group rides, most had cut their teeth in women’s groups with names like Feather Pedals and Velo Girls.

A few, like me, were daily commuters, but most were strictly recreational riders, with a strong showing of the charity ride regulars. The most commonly cited reason for not running errands on their bikes? They couldn’t bear the idea of leaving their “babies” unattended.

Some came to the sport as a gentler alternative to running, others hadn’t really exercised in years before they started cycling. There was discussion over what being a “cyclist” meant. To one woman, a bike rider earns the title “cyclist” when she starts wearing cycling jerseys. Another was quick to say she didn’t consider herself a cyclist, despite the jersey on her back. She didn’t explain why before the conversation turned.

While most were old enough to have college-age kids, there were young’uns along for the ride and the fellowship which knows no age. A shared love of bikes is usually all it takes to bring women together.

Will you travel far to join a group ride? If so, what makes it worth going the extra distance?

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Posted by on October 15, 2013 in Backroads, Women & Bikes


A New Road Less Traveled, Courtesy of Giro

I’ve been bicycling long enough and am curious enough that I’ve ridden most of the backroads in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. I know which roads are beautifully quiet and I know which are prone to heavy traffic. I know which roll along or climb gently and I know which will brutally punish you with steep 15%+ grades.

So when Katie and I found ourselves riding with a strong group on Summit Road and she said, “They’re turning on Loma Prieta Road. What’s it like?” I was surprised I didn’t know. I knew that Loma Prieta ran parallel to Summit, but that was it. “They say it turns to gravel,” she said. I said, “Let’s do it” and surprised myself.

Loma Prieta Road

We had joined up with a ride sponsored by Giro to promote the launch of their New Road clothing. Santa Cruz-based riding club Steel Wül had planned an all day route in the hills, but details were thin. All we knew was they were starting at Giro headquarters in Scotts Valley and climbing the painfully steep Mountain Charlie Road.

Katie works for Giro as their marketing director and wanted to ride with the group, but she wasn’t looking forward to driving over the hill to Scotts Valley like she does every weekday morning. And I wasn’t looking forward to starting a long ride with climb up Mountain Charlie, much less riding with a pack of fast bike industry riders. Our plan: climb up the other side of the hill from Los Gatos, take a few photos and play it by ear.

We ended up climbing into the unknown on Loma Prieta Road, dropping down the dirt on Mt Bache and then riding along the delightfully remote, but potholed Highland Road to a lunch stop in the redwoods at Buzzard’s Lagoon. I quickly snapped some shots and got a better look at the Giro New Road line.

Giro New Road Apparel

The bicycling world often divides riders by discipline: roadies, mountain bikers, commuters, urban hipsters and more. Each requires a specific uniform: lycra kits for roadies, baggie shorts for mountain bikers, hi-viz for commuters and skinny jeans for hipsters. Giro New Road goes beyond the tribal distinctions with a line of bike wear that can take a rider from road to trail to cafe in comfort and style. The secret is merino wool, the original technical fabric, carefully tailored cuts and performance features, and a healthy dose of relaxed California style.

As someone who belongs to several bike tribes, New Road appeals to me. I can see myself wearing it for weekend trail and road rides and on my longer commutes. What’s currently available is cut to fit men, but inside sources tell me there’s a women’s line in the works. You can get a glimpse of a prototype in the slideshow.

Katie and I left the group after lunch. They rolled down to the coast while we headed back over to the bay side of the hills. Not an easy day in the saddle for me, but my curiosity was satisfied by a New Road from Giro.

What bicycle tribe(s) do you belong to? Does each require its own uniform? Does each have its own style?

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Posted by on April 30, 2013 in Backroads


Why We Ride: Cycletherapy

To cope with high-pressures jobs, some people head outdoors to sweat off the stress, while others seek out friends to talk it out over a drink or a cup of coffee. When you have good friends to ride with and beautiful places to ride right in your backyard, you can multi-task by sweating it off and talking it out all at the same time.

How do you deal with stress? Do you prefer to go it alone or seek out others? Is there a special place you go?



Posted by on April 4, 2013 in Backroads



Bike Commute Diaries: Lighter Than Air

When you trade the sturdy city bike you ride to work every day for a road bike you ride after work, you feel like you’re soaring into flight, right from that first pedal stroke. And maybe you are. Happy Daylight Saving Time!

Altamont Descent

About the Bike Commute Diaries: Launched in May 2012 for National Bike Month, this series explores the unexpected and surprising things I’ve learned about bicycling for transportation.


Posted by on March 14, 2013 in Backroads, Commute Diaries


Yours, Mine and Ours: Bicycling in Tandem

Two-wheeled romance or divorce machine? The tandem bicycle’s paradoxical reputation is well-deserved. As the popular adage goes “Whatever way your relationship is going, a tandem will get you there faster.” How a couple rides a tandem together both reflects and intensifies their relationship, for better or for worse.

My husband and I bought a tandem as a wedding gift to ourselves. Our plan to ride it away from our wedding was far from unique, even trite, albeit the post-wedding procession plan was a 2800′ descent down Mt Hamilton.

Alviso Marina Tandem

An epic windstorm kept us from riding that day, but we do take the big beast out from time to time and have mastered the necessary skills: how to start, how to turn at slow speeds, how to stand to get over a rise, and most importantly, how to communicate and work effectively as a team. Well, 97% of the time anyway.

The usual advice on tandem success tells the stoker (rear rider) to “trust the captain” and tells the captain (front rider) that “the stoker is always right.” To me, that advice falls short. The truth is that it’s all about consideration. The captain has to earn the confidence of the stoker to be an effective leader, and that only happens when the stoker believes his or her requests will be respected by the captain. Both partners need to be willing to follow.

In short, successful tandem teams are successful partnerships, which is what successful marriages are.

Panda Duo

Now I’m not an expert on tandems or marriages or even partnerships, but I’ve done 50+ mile rides in both the captain’s and stoker’s seat, “raced” tandem cyclocross, and finished the rides on good terms with my partners.

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far as a captain:

  • Talk, talk, talk, especially with a new stoker. “I’m shifting”, “Coasting,” “Bump,” “Turning left,” “Standing.”
  • Encourage feedback from your stoker. “Is this gear comfortable?” “Was the speed OK on that descent?”
  • Apologize if you make a mistake or do something your stoker isn’t comfortable with.
  • The turning radius and stopping distance required are much larger than you might expect.

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far as a stoker:

  • Be patient when the captain does something you don’t like. He or she wasn’t doing it to piss you off.
  • Be gentle when you ask the captain to do something differently. Lighthearted humor goes a long way.
  • Not having to steer gives you freedom to take photos, eat, stretch, etc. Just don’t wiggle too much.
  • For an easy power boost, you can stand and pump while the captain stays seated. Just don’t rock the bike.

These tips are just a start. There’s a lot more specific advice on riding a tandem out there, but honestly the best way is to hop on, give it a whirl and work out the rough spots on the street. You’ll definitely learn a thing or two about yourself, your partner and your relationship, for better or for worse. And you can always ditch the bike.

Have you ever ridden a tandem? If so, what were the biggest challenges? If not, would you consider it?

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Posted by on February 20, 2013 in Backroads


Bicycle Getaways: The San Francisco Riviera

When most people think of traveling by bike they think of bicycle touring, where you carry everything you need to be self-sufficient for long distances: clothing, sleeping bag, tent, cookware. Like backpacking on wheels. Or perhaps “credit card” touring, where you skip the camping and stay in motels or hostels. Or supported tours, where guides plan your route and vehicles carry your gear (and you too, if you don’t want to ride that day).


When Dick and I bought our touring bikes last year, we didn’t really have a plan. I suspected we’d set out for credit card type tours, and we still may. But so far, our overnight bike trips don’t fit any of these models. I would call them “bicycle getaways”: 2-4 day trips, more urban than most touring trips, using transit to increase our travel ranges, and with luxury accommodations. Ideally a hotel with a fuzzy robes and great restaurants nearby.

Breakfast in Bed

So far, we’ve done four bicycle getaways: two to Sacramento, one to San Francisco, and one I planned recently for Dick’s birthday. Instead of giving birthday gifts, we have a tradition of going away for a short trips. Dick’s birthday being close to Thanksgiving makes things challenging. Airports and highways are full of holiday travelers and after nine years together we’d already visited all the closer spots. I was running out of ideas.

Then I thought of Tiburon, a small town on the north end of San Francisco Bay that along with neighboring Sausalito and Belvedere Island make up what’s affectionately called the San Francisco Riviera. I was sold.

Like our other bike getaways, the train made it easy to ride from home. Caltrain got us to San Francisco, then it was less than 30 miles across the Golden Gate Bridge and around the bay to Tiburon. We had our bikes available for a Marin day trip the next day, then home was just a ferry ride and train ride away. No holiday traffic like a driving trip would be, and more luxury than a full-on touring trip. Why didn’t I think of this sooner?

Where have you ever done loaded toured with your bike? Did you go hardcore with fully-loaded touring or did you “credit card” it for a lighter load?

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Trip Details: Starting from home in Mountain View, we traveled this route for a total 165 miles: 80 miles by train, 75 by bike, 10 by ferry. Transportation costs: $29 ($11 for Dick’s train pass, $18 for ferry, free bike parking at hotel). Hotel: Water’s Edge. Restaurants: Capurro’s (SF), Caprice, Sam’s Cafe and Boathouse (Tiburon).

Tiburon Trip Map


Posted by on January 7, 2013 in Backroads, Travel


Peak of the Month: The Bayway to San Bruno Mtn

There are peaks like Mt. Diablo and Mt Tamalpais that are destination rides for cyclists from all over the Bay Area. There are peaks like Twin Peaks that are destination drives for tourists from all over the world. Then there are peaks like San Bruno Mountain that are largely ignored, despite their impressive views of the bay and coast.

The name doesn’t help. San Bruno the city is your basic working town: more grit that glamor, more substance than style. And the peak’s principal landmark is a Hollywood-style sign that proclaims “The Industrial City.” So it was only fitting that the route for this month’s peak ride explored the grittier side of the Peninsula, the often-abused land along San Francisco Bay, the home of garbage dumps, heavy industry and even a county jail.

Located just south of San Francisco, San Bruno Mountain is 40 or so miles north of Mountain View so we planned to ride from there and take Caltrain back. The route was loosely based on the “Bayway” route that the San Francisco to Google (SF2G) long distance commuters take every day.

None of us had ridden the complete route before, but we were able to piece it together without too many stops and no wrong-way detours. In addition to the grittier side, our route along the bay offered well-built bike paths sandwiched between the freeway and the bay, the headquarters of high-tech and biotech giants, jets landing and taking off, a multitude of bridges and fewer joggers and dog walkers than I expected.

The ascent up San Bruno Mountain was relatively short, relatively steep in a few places, with views of the city and the bay, Twin Peaks and Mt Diablo. And like all respectable peaks, it had more than its fair share of aging radio towers. We dropped down the ocean side into the fog, whistled quickly through the graveyards of Colma and managed to find something decent to eat in the industrial city at the base of an underrated peak.

Do you have favorite routes that you consider scenic in an non-traditional way? What is it about the routes that appeals to you?

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Posted by on October 21, 2012 in Backroads


Peak of the Month: Rising Above It All on Twin Peaks

If you draw a big X spanning the four corners of San Francisco, at the crossing point would be a pair of peaks rising above all others, a remarkable distinction in a city famously known for its hills. But unlike Mt Tamalpais to the North and Mt Diablo to the East, these Twin Peaks fail to rise above 1000 feet of elevation. Despite their modest height, conquering these twin peaks was still a challenge that we could not resist.

The challenge was its urban setting, which meant our 52 mile route included over 10 miles on a gritty shoulder of a fast four lane highway, then navigating across an unfamiliar city in hopes of avoiding aggressive drivers. We’re suburban roadies, not hipsters on fixies, so we were a little out of our comfort zone. We adapted quickly.

At least the weather cooperated. An exceptionally hot day down in Silicon Valley translated into pleasant temperatures and minimal fog on the ocean-exposed ridge leading to the western side of the city. Developers named this district the Sunset despite the fact that sunsets are obscured by fog more days than not.

The payoff for our efforts was the clear view of the complete 47 square miles that make up San Francisco city and county, the ocean and bay that surround it, and even Mt Diablo and Mt Tam off in the distance. And for once, it wasn’t cold and windy at the top so we could relax and take in the view of a beautifully unique city.

How comfortable are you riding on big city streets? On the shoulder of fast busy highways? When have you ridden out of your comfort zone? Was it harder or easier than expected?

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Posted by on August 14, 2012 in Backroads

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