Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Double Digits

I arrived at the court early to watch the mini-tournament kick-off match between the "A" champions and "B" champions. I grabbed a spot on the bleachers and had to smile as both teams ran through their hitting drills. Every set was near perfect and nearly every hit was a rocket to the hardwood. Man, were we going to get killed.

The A team dispatched the B team in two pretty quick games, and then it was our turn. Our main goal, besides just having fun of course, was to get a double-digit score and get through the rotation at least once. We did make it through the rotation plus two spots, but we only got 8 points in the first game. In the second game, they eased up and gave their women lots of practice hitting, and we managed to get to fourteen or fifteen points before they dealt the deathblow. Woo hoo! Double digits!

So, tonight we face the B squad in the first game. Hopefully we'll hold them off a little better, but it's still pretty much a foregone conclusion that we'll be watching the overall championship game rather than participating.

I'm not sure why the city holds an "overall championship tournament". You don't see minor league baseball champions facing the Yankees. They don't run the best cat 4 cyclists up against Hincapie for the national championship. My team playing the city's best A team is fun for me because of the personal challenge and the experience of watching a good team run a good offense. It has to be pretty unsatisfying for them to go through the motions of beating up on us, and it's anti-climactic for us to follow up a hard-fought and exciting championship win with two arse-whoopings.

The main thing I'm getting out of playing these teams is the knowledge of what I need to do to play at their level. The biggest thing I need to do is to gain about ten to fifteen pounds of muscle above the waist and to train the fast twitchers in my legs more to get a few more inches of air. So we'll see what happens. Do I fall back into large volumes of cycling for the summer and maintain my aerobic wispiness, or do I hit the gym to pack on some muscle and go into the fall crushing the volleyball?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

New Steed

I'm thinking of buying this bike in the hopes that it gives me more motivation for training. It doesn't look like it'd be that great in the hills, but maybe it feels so good, I wouldn't care. The picture is from, one of my favorite websites for a guaranteed laugh.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Planet Earth

There's nothing much going on for training right now, except I'm approaching full panic mode as our cycling trip to mountainous Asheville, NC is looming large. The swollen knee from volleyball is about 90% and should be back to normal for the last two games Tuesday and Wednesday night. Our team captain brought my free duffle bag to me from the "C" city league, emblazoned with graphics declaring us 2006-2007 champions. It's pretty nice, but smells funny. Since we'll be playing the "A" and "B" league champions and by all rights should get our arses kicked, it's likely that the bag is the end of the free schwag for this season.

On a side note, if you haven't seen it already, you owe it to yourself to tune in to the Discovery Channel and watch the 11-part series "Planet Earth" that premiered last night. They're repeating the episodes frequently, so check them out. The ground-breaking new camera technology will leave you staring in awe at your television. Watching a snow leopard pursue a mountain goat at high speed along death-defying vertical rock faces is just one of the many first-time-ever-filmed events that will take your breath away and leave you amazed at the diversity in life, weather, water, and earth on this little blue spaceship we call home.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Champions of the World!

Well, okay, Champions of Syracuse!

Well, okay, Champions of Syracuse City Recreation League Class C!

Last night, my volleyball team fought through eight games in three matches to clinch the Class C Syracuse championship. Along with the trophy we picked up, I also came home with a gigundous hematoma on the outside of my right knee. I knocked it on the floor while diving near the end of our seventh game, and then about halfway through the last game, I squatted down and my knee felt a little tight. I looked down to see what looked just like half a lacrosse ball under the skin on my knee. Good old R.I.C.E. (rest, ice, compression, and elevation, of course) seems to be doing the trick. It's now still quite swollen, but it's much more diffuse and doesn't look like it's going to explode anymore.

Our first match as we went into the last night of the double-elimination tournament was against a team we'd already beaten once. It took us a while to get on our game, and they beat us in the first game, the second game was close with us on top, and then the third game, played to 15 instead of 25, was a ridiculously nail-biting 21 to 19, since we had to win by two points, of course.

We sucked down some energy gels between matches to keep the sugar and caffeine levels up - everyone on the team is a mountain biker and we came prepared. The next match was against a team we'd just played the night before. They were solid that night, and we had imploded, seemingly unable to pass the ball to our setters if our lives depended on it. We did a good job of analyzing their strengths, and adjusted our game to compensate. We took the match quickly in two games but they were warming up and we were getting more tired.

With that match won, it meant that both teams had lost one match in the tournament, and we had to play each other again immediately for the championship. We split the next two games closely, but momentum was on our side. The last game started off even, with a six to six score, before we started to make a run on serves. Pretty soon it was about twelve to eight, and then finally that magical number 15 appeared on the scoreboard and it was over.

Volleyball is a great sport. When it's played well, it's fast, powerful, and violent. There is a tremendous amount of power and skill necessary to play at the highest levels, and though we're not up there of course, we still manage to get some pretty good attacks going from time to time. It's so very satisfying when I'm on my game, get a good set, and have that sensation that time slows down and I can hang up above the net for a while, take a good look at where the blockers are, and then pound the ball down around them. This is the first time in years that I've gotten back into the sport, after having played a few years back in the city B league, and on an excellent boys high school team many years before that.

Though I've been short on cycling fitness of late, the good news is that I've gotten back a couple inches of my vertical leap that I'd lost after starting bike riding. That darn battle between fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers is a tough one.

So, now we head on to contest the overall city championship. The winners from the "A", "B", and "C" classes do a round-robin double elimination tournament. By all rights, the A winners should mop the floor with the B and C teams, so we have nothing to lose, and it should be a lot of fun. All I have to do is get my knee loosened up by next week and I'll be set to go.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Mountain Biking in Tucson

You've all been very patient (all one or two of you) and I've finally compiled a vacation report of our recent Tucson trip. I'm sure you've all been on pins and needles waiting for this post, so grab some popcorn and I'll get down to it.

We packed up our mountain bikes in Trico Sport "Iron" cases and headed out on US Airways. We were dinged 80 bucks per bike box each way. That's a big ouch, but it's still cheaper than renting, and cheaper than the $96 per bike each way we were quoted from Fed Ex and DHL. We got quotes from UPS and USPS also, but they were considerably higher.

We flew into Phoenix (pronounced pa-HOE-nicks, of course) where we had a "mid-size SUV" on reserve from Budget to take us to Tucson. We arrived around midnight to find a choice between a Hyundai Santa Fe and a brand-spanking-new Subaru Outback with 7 miles on it. Score. We grabbed the Outback and threw in the cases. The Outback (and Subies in general) is now high on our list for future car purchases. It felt a bit gutless to me, but then again I'm spoiled after being used to the S4. But otherwise, it was super smooth, solid, handled well, and was awesome over some very rough dirt roads.

We stayed for four nights at the Coyote Crossing Bed and Breakfast just northwest of Tucson. The location is perfect, nestled between the Desert Museum and Saguaro National Park West on one side and the Catalina Mountains on the other. The owners are a wonderful couple who will pack you full of local knowledge, trail information, and the best darn breakfasts you've ever eaten. The pool would be great in the boiling summer heat, but we found ourselves most often in the hot tub enjoying the cool evenings.

The trails around Tucson are amazing, no doubt about it. They're bone dry 99.9% of the time, it seems, and though there are no logs to hop over, there is plenty of bare rock, loose sand and baby heads to keep you attentive. The trails are amazingly well supported.

The "50-year trail" along the foot of the Catalina Mountains can be accessed at the end of Golder Ranch Road off of Oracle Road north of Catalina State Park. There is a long-term (50 years, apparently) contract with the ranchers on the open range to allow people to use the trail. At the north end of the trail you'll find the "Chutes", troughs carved through the rock and hard soil by flowing water. You start high in these chutes and then rocket downward, swooping this way and that, up and down, following the trough that sometimes is so narrow and steep on the sides, it threatens to grab hold of both pedals. The other end of the trail takes you on a long jaunt to Catalina State Park, with lots of baby heads and great views along the way.

Just east of the Davis-Monthan Air Force base on Irvington Road is the access point for Fantasy Island. This play park for mountain bikes rests on a three square mile plot, but the genius designers twisted and turned the one-way paths through the area to make something near fifteen miles of trails. There's an over-under bridge on a figure eight we've never dared do, a couple of rocketing downhills, some small hairpin climbs, loose berms on turns, lots of rocks, long stretches of fast hard dirt, a Christmas tree of sorts, and lots and lots of cacti to make sure you stay on the trail. The penalty for over-cooking a corner can be very painful.

For some amazing cross-country with harder technical challenges, we headed out to Starr Pass, a county park area west of the city off of Starr Pass Blvd. The county actually builds trails there, and they're fantastic. You ride among the Saguaros and enjoy the challenges of rocky downhills, stepped climbs, long rollers through tough brushland, and a mile-long wash filled with tiny gravel that saps your strength and tries to push around your front wheel while the rear is spinning.

We had vowed to take riding less seriously than we did on our trip in 2005, so we took some time to do some "touristy" things like normal people. We went on a short hike near the B&B to see some interesting and ancient petroglyphs maintained by the desert climate. We hit a couple of walking trails in the Saguaro National Park West, and toured the Desert Museum. The under-12 and over-60 demographics were certainly well represented there. The Desert "Museum" is more of a zoo than what I usually think of as a museum. It is interesting and very educational, but I have to say, once you've seen one pointy cactus and patch of brown dirt, you've pretty much seen them all.

We toured the University of Arizona at Tucson, a beautiful campus, and very attractive to tourists and students alike with museums, shops, and great displays in their research buildings. It made me wish I'd looked at it when I was choosing colleges. At that time though, I had no idea what was out there, and only enough resources to choose a school based on their brochure.

We stopped by the Mission San Xavier del Bac, a very old church founded by a Jesuit priest in 1692. The evidence of the native religions incorporated into the Catholic beliefs was strikingly evident. The intricate designs of architecture and paintings inside were awe-inspiring.

Further south from Tucson, we encountered the Titan II Missile Museum. This tiny hole in the desert once held a nuclear warhead pointed at who-knows-where, someplace deep inside the Soviet Union, for sure. The rest of the 56 silos throughout the southwest were dismantled or filled, but this one was turned into a museum that you can tour and remind yourself, or learn for the first time, about the nervousness of the cold war and the strategies of mutually assured destruction. The security, technology and construction was very impressive despite it being of a late '60s vintage. Anything important in the complex is suspended on huge springs (look closely in the command center photo) so it can bounce around and still work during a nuclear attack above ground. At ground level, the many, many ton silo door is halfway open, barricaded from opening farther by two large concrete barriers, a display for foreign satellites overhead keeping track to make sure treaties are obeyed. Through an observation window, you can peer down onto the business end of the 110-foot tall missile.

At the start of the tour, Sue handed me the camera, saying, "Here. You take the camera since this is a 'man' tour and you'll probably want to take more pictures." The next thing I knew, she'd taken the camera back, and was excitedly snapping photos of everything from the missile nose cone to the emergency eye wash stations. The tour guide even picked her to try closing the six-inch thick, many ton steel blast doors and to turn the key to simulate a launch. Lucky! At least I got to (had to) wear a blue hard hat because I'm over 5'10" tall. Hah! Sue's still talking about how the missile museum is the best museum she's ever been to.

Tucson is the home to the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base as well. When riding at Starr Pass, planes constantly fly overhead on practice maneuvers. The base is the graveyard for thousands of old planes. I spotted C-130 transports, A-6 intruders, F-4 phantoms, A-10s, F-16s, F-14s, and several others. We did not tour it, but just snapped some photos from outside the fence.

We wrapped up our stay in Tucson with a final meal at El Charro, the oldest family-owned restaurant in the country, founded in 1922. They've opened up two more locations in the city, but the one on Court St in the old section of town has the best atmosphere. We moaned through our pollo with mole sauce, our carne seca our salsa verde, and our tres leches cake. We were just about to leave when a Mariachi band came through with a great performance.

As the old saying goes, Tucson is a great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. I'm too spoiled by the beauty of pine covered mountains, lush grasslands, and crystal clear lakes and streams here in the northeast. The stark and brutal nature of the Sonoran Desert is interesting for a day or two, and then, unless you're challenging yourself on the amazing roller coaster of mountain bike trails, it gets old fast. The vistas there are beautiful from far away, but when you get close to anything there, you realize it's violent in its efforts to hoard water. All plants are terribly pointy and just want to be left alone. It's been a couple weeks and I still have the tips of about ten cactus spines in my pinky finger. They're broken off and too short to grab onto, so I just have to wait for my body to take care of them. The weather in Tucson is fantastic in the winter, but I wouldn't want to be there in the summer. Finally, the massive population growth that the Tucson area is experiencing turned us off. There is an obvious gap between the poor who've been there forever trying to eek out a living in the desert, and the newly rich who have some in, built big housing complexes next door, and waste water by trying to grow grass in their lawns like they had in wherever they came from. Our B&B owner was subtle with his opinions, but clearly shakes his head at the development he sees around him.

I will continue to complain about the cold and snow in Central New York winters, but I will surely admire the summer greenery of home a little more passionately after having toured in Tucson. It was a fun and relaxing trip, but it's good to be home.