How drought alters our experience

San Leandro Reservoir in the San Francisco Bay Area is Lowe than normal for January.

San Leandro Reservoir in the San Francisco Bay Area is lower than normal for January. Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency in California. Photo by Michael Collier.

By Michael Collier

This week I took my first extended bike ride since Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared a drought emergency in California after the driest year on record in 2013 and no relief on the horizon as we hurdle into 2014.

We all knew this was coming, and it is going to affect our experience of the outdoors in several ways.

The landscape is so dry that it irritates our breathing passages, sometimes causing severe allergies and asthma. It causes wildlife to wander more often into human settlements in search of food. And it can lead to disastrous fires.

Hold on a minute

The flip side of this emergency is that the weather is downright wonderful right now. We don’t have to go to New Zealand or Argentina to get summer weather in the winter.

The first thing I noticed on my recent ride was how many people were enjoying the outdoors — cyclists, runners and walkers alike.

As I climbed to the top of the East Bay ridge line, I was also impressed by the number of trees in full bloom — on January 22, not March 22. The mid-day sun felt like the warmth on a late-Spring day in a normal year. But these are not normal times.

The wind patterns in California’s coastal regions typically blow from west to east, thanks to a steady flow in the jet stream. But larger weather conditions interrupting that air flow north of the state are causing the wind here to blow consistently in the opposite direction — a pattern known as Santa Ana winds in Southern California or Diablo winds in the northern part of the state.

Such gusty winds are dangerous to coastal communities, as the San Francisco Bay Area saw in 1991, when neighborhoods in the East Bay hills burned to the ground in one of the worst urban wildfires in the U.S. at the time.

More fires

Since Jan. 1, there have been more than 150 wildfires across the state, according to fire officials — about six times more than normal.

The likelihood of more and more-intense fires this year is bad news for cyclists and promoters of dozens of  bike events. Riding near fires is a health danger and could cause cancellations of such events. A few years ago, I participated in a double century near Solvang (Santa Barbara County) as a fire raged in the mountains to the east. More recently, a fire on Mount Diablo closed the state park for days last summer — and even after it was reopened the mountain smelled like a barbecue.

Officials at Death Valley National Park, the most-popular venue for Spring bike tours, have ordered the park closed to bike events — not because of fire danger but to evaluate traffic safety as more motorists and more runners and cyclists compete for space on park roads.

But that and the likely ravages of continuing drought are a warning flag to outdoor-lovers.

“The climate is changing, and not for the better,” Brown said this week in his state of the state address, adding that drought is a “stark warning of things to come” for California.

Most folks who savor their experience in nature aren’t likely to become couch potatoes. One silver lining of the crazy weather this year on the West Coast — from Seattle and Portland south to San Diego — is that watching the changes will be quite engaging to us.

This flowering cherry tree in the Berkeley hills would typically be devoid of blossoms this time of year.

This flowering cherry tree in the Berkeley hills would typically be devoid of blossoms this time of year. Photo by Michael Collier

Get to the core in the new year

My second double century in 2007 spanned the picturesque Eastern Sierra, from Bishop (Inyo County) to Mono Lake with its tufas, and back to Bishop along the Nevada border.

This is the old me, doing a climb out of Owens Valley in the 2007 Eastern Sierra Double. Notice how my lower back and shoulders are rounded forward — a no-no. The proper posture is with the lower back arched to push the abdomen forward, with shoulders back and neck pushed toward the sky.

By Michael Collier

A favorite New Year’s resolution for most of my cycling-loving pals is to ride more and longer and on steeper terrain.

It’s what we all want, right? But many bike riders think that all they really need to do is hop on their 16-pound, carbon-frame machine and ride like crazy. That will assure that their resolution comes true.

I know, because I was one of those kind of riders for years. I started in January with a log sheet premised on riding more miles every week until I was strong and fit enough to ride 100 miles — or even 200 miles — in a day.

Pump the legs, get them stronger! Lay down a lot of base miles. And after doing all that, I still caved on hilly, long rides. My legs cramped, my neck, shoulders and lower back hurt and I felt fatigue throughout my body.

Build core strength

The problem is that it’s not about the legs alone. It’s about the core of the human anatomy, from the hips to the head.

My advice: Find a core-strenth class right now and put it at the top of your training list. Get on Google or talk to your friends, particularly your women friends, who seem to be more hip to the virtues of core strength than many men I know. There are several such classes in every community. And the price — usually just a few dollars for an hour or more — is cheap given the benefits you will reap.

Cycling is a perfect whole-body exercise, which means that each muscle group is important — especially for endurance cyclists.

Muscles work in pairs, front and back. That means the hamstrings and quads are perfectly matched with the hams acting like pistons to lift the thighs in a powerful motion, while the quads finish the pedal revolution. Same goes for your abs and your lower back muscles. If they’re weak, so are you.

If the legs are all you rely on for power and endurance for hours on end, you will be a wreck at some point. I often see the telltale signs: A rider climbing to the top of a righteous peak with legs straining, butt coming off the saddle frequently and an anguished look on the face.

Born again

I was sold on the importance of core-building when my wife, who is an expert in anatomy, invited me to her workout class.

The instructor, Ernie Adams (, focuses a lot of his routines on the core muscles and very little on the legs. I was doubtful that this could help my cycling, but after a month I was sold.  I rode the hardest double century of my life with extra energy to burn at the finish line. That’s because the legs had a worthy supporting cast of solid core muscles.

I rode up hills with my butt in the saddle, passing other riders on the hardest climbs. Since then I have worked my core-strength class into my weekly routine. My body is happy because I have learned about how it works  — and how to avoid working it in ways that exact a price.

When you see a cyclist hammering a climb with a smile, while you struggle, think about it. That six pack, lower back, flexible shoulders, strong biceps and triceps are your best friend. Give them the love.

SpinAdventure has its own domain

By Michael Collier

Today marks a milestone in the SpinAdventure blog. It now has its own domain —

Selfie, taken on the new span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge

Selfie, taken on the new span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge

While the platform remains WordPress, dropping makes the URL shorter and more user-friendly.  The custom domain also gives the blog a higher profile on search engines. That means more page views and broader reach for this blog in cycling communities across the U.S. and beyond.

SpinAdventure (yes, we also dropped the ‘s’ at the end) was created in October 2013 as a deeper narrative on the inner experience of cycling for a growing number of bike commuters, weekend warriors and ultra-distance cyclists.

Since then, it has explored life transitions, death, renewal and the uplifting power of a Personal Best effort.

Please let us know what you think of the blog in the comments section below. We need your feedback and want to make this blog as meaningful as possible to our current and future readers.

Thanks, and best wishes for an active and reflective new year. Ride on.