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 by: Bill Oetinger  5/1/2015

Spring Cleaning, 2015

Every so often, I round up a few topics from past columns and give them another run around the block. These are issues about which I wrote in the not-too-distant past, where subsequent developments have moved those stories along. When the season is right, I call them Spring Cleaning: opening up the doors and windows and chasing the stale winter fug out of the house, sweeping all the dust bunnies out from under the beds and sofas and out the door.

I have just three old stories to revisit this time around. First is a follow-up on a very recent column (from just two months ago): the one about the proposed helmet law. To recap briefly, a state legislator had authored a bill that would make bike helmets mandatory for everyone. Many people thought this was a good idea, but many others, including most of the state's bicycle advocacy groups, did not. They protested strenuously and offered facts and figures supporting the notion that the bill, if passed, would be counterproductive for the advancement of cycling's best interests.

Many other cyclists, including me, agreed with their position and signed petitions, wrote blogs, lobbied on club chat lists and forums, and generally created such a ruckus of opposition that the bill was essentially killed. Not quite killed outright, but substantially amended. As can be seen in this notice from the legislature, all of the language in the bill about helmets and "retroflective" clothing has been deleted, and all the bill calls for now is a study to be conducted over the next few years on the larger question of helmet use and all of the intended and unintended consequences of such a law, were one to be implemented.

I'm not going to argue the case again regarding whether the bill was a good one or not. If you want that, you can get it from my column (and the links in that column) back in March. But clearly, plenty of people did not think the bill was worthwhile, and the grass-roots campaign to muster up support for that point of view and get it heard was successful. Just as we saw with the social media firestorm described in last month's column (about the "I hate cyclists" blogger), this was a case where a very actively alert and engaged and informed cycling community made the difference. It's democracy in action as we now see it in our modern, tech-driven world. For all the facile, self-absorbed silliness of Facebook and Twitter and the like, those networks can come in very handy when you want to mobilize a lot of people quickly.

The next item on my list of loose ends does not come with such happy, satisfying closure. This is a follow-up to my Death Valley Debacle column from March, 2014, which covered the then-new moratorium on sporting events in Death Valley National Park. If you want the full story, go back and read that column. In summary, what it amounted to was the newly appointed Superintendent of the park, Kathy Billings, decided she didn't like most of the bike tours and foot races being run in the park and suspended permits for almost all of them while she had a study done on their various impacts on the park.

Never mind that she had just come to the job from another posting at a park in Hawaii and that she had zero acquaintance with the biking and running events held in the park. Never mind that she could have conducted her study more usefully by observing a few of the events as they unfolded, over the course of the 2014 season. Never mind that all of the events on her hit list had impeccable safety records going back many years. No…forget all that. She had her mind made up from the start and wouldn't listen to any of the other involved parties (as described in my column).

The most significant events on her black list were the Spring and Fall Death Valley Centuries and Double Centuries, the Furnace Creek 508 ultramarathon bike race, and the Badwater 135 footrace, all organized by Chris Kostman and his AdventureCorps company. Also banned was AdventureCorps' four-day training camp in the valley and the Whitney Classic. Curiously, amidst this almost clean sweep of every bike and run event in the valley, three events were never prohibited: Death Valley Marathon, Death Valley Trail Marathon, and JDRF Ride to Cure Diabetes. (What's curious about this to me is, if the ostensible reasons for suspending the events were presumptive safety issues and potential negative impacts on the park and on its other visitors, how do you selectively ban some events—including some as innocuous as century rides—but let stand two marathons and a large "disease" ride? Why were several events banned and these three not touched?)

So…almost all events were suspended indefinitely while her self-appointed team of "experts" did their review. We could have hoped for a positive outcome from this report, but based on the cavalier, dictatorial way in which Billings had behaved up to this point, there wasn't much ground for optimism. Sure enough, when the final, 73-page report appeared in August, 2014, there was no good news in it for cyclists. (And by the way: the original proposal for the review stated there would be three periods for feedback and contributions from all the other stakeholders in this matter. But in the end, there was never a single opportunity to include input from the event organizers or from any other interested parties. The report was presented to the public as a fait accompli.)

Contained within the report's governmental wordsmithing are so many rules and regulations and expensive hurdles and obstacles, and so much red tape, that it is now virtually impossible to stage any sort of sporting event in Death Valley National Park. So, at least for the foreseeable future, all of the biking events listed above are kaput. The only AdventureCorps event that is being continued is the Badwater 135 footrace to Whitney Portal, but it is now saddled with an array of rules that fairly substantively alter the original nature of the challenge. Whether it continues to occupy its former niche in the world of ultra-running remains to be seen. The Furnace Creek 508 has been reinvented as the Silver State 508 in nearby Nevada. The doubles and centuries are just…history.

Thanks to the new, almost impossibly difficult and expensive "safety" rules, the opportunity for cyclists to ride in Death Valley with the support of a good organization is lost, presumably forever. And here's a really intriguing footnote to this mess. Within weeks of the presentation of her pet report in August, Superintendent Billings announced her retirement. That means pretty much her entire legacy as Superintendent of this great American park—a term in office lasting only a few months—was the act of prohibiting all organized bike rides in the park. For over a quarter of a century, these excellent events have provided challenge and enjoyment to thousands of cyclists without anyone complaining and without the least blemish on the records of any of the events. Then this one bureaucrat flies in from Hawaii and nukes the whole array of events at a stroke…and then scampers out the door. "Bye! Glad I had this opportunity to thoroughly screw up the fun for all the rest of you!" It's so capricious. It's like being hit by a meteorite while out riding your bike…a bolt from the blue. Hit-and-run bureaucracy.

I haven't mentioned what a negative impact this has on the local economy either. I did in my original column, but it bears repeating here that little Inyo County benefited greatly from the influx of tourists participating in all these events. The county and the local economy are taking a hard hit because of the executive fiat of one person.

I suppose it's just remotely possible that a new Superintendent could rescind these so-called safety regulations and return things to something close to the way they had been in the past. But I don't think we should count on it. Bureaucrats love red tape. The more there is, and the more convoluted and tangled it gets, the better they like it. I have learned this the hard way while staging bike events throughout the western US. Once park superintendents get hold of a nice big ball of red tape, they hate to let go of it.

Finally, if that last item has left you a bit discouraged, here is something in a lighter, cheerier vein that might perk you up again. This harks back to a column I wrote one month before the Death Valley essay. This one was called Name that Summit! and was a whimsical, tongue-in-cheek rant about how we need to put catchy names on our many as yet unnamed summits in California…names that would eventually become iconic, just like the great cols in Europe…Gavia, Galibier, Croix de Fer, Zoncolan…

I intended it to be humorous and not to be taken too seriously. But I can't let go of the notion that it's still a pretty valid premise. I don't expect CalTrans or the local county road crews to start running out and putting up such signs any time soon, but we see them putting up Share the Road signs and watershed signs, so why not summits? (Yes, we do have some named summits, but we have a far larger inventory of great climbs without named or honored summits. We need to change that.)

At the end of that column, almost as an afterthought, I added a wish that we have something like the mille bournes you see along the ascents of most cols in France: the little roadside markers that announce the details of the climb (which I illustrated with a photo of one such marker on the climb to Col de la Croix de Fer).

So imagine how pleased I was—shortly after writing that piece—to encounter exactly these mille bournes while climbing one of my favorite North Bay roads, Ink Grade. There they were, magically transported from some country road in Provence, ending up right in my back yard. How cool is that? I wish I could say that the public works department in Napa County had read my column and found it to be brilliant, and had set about making my dreams come true. But no. We have to look to the private sector in this case. Specifically to Velo Vino, just over the ridge from Ink Grade in the town of St Helena.Col de Ink Grade

When you make a bucket of money producing and selling Clif Bars and all that other good Clif product, you get to kick back and indulge your twin passions: wine making and cycling. And as the name implies, at this unique tasting room, wines and bikes are both featured attractions. You can sample wines from the Clif Family Winery while admiring the vintage bikes hanging on the walls. You can relax after a ride over Ink Grade with some munchies on their very handsome back patio.

I seem to recall that the owners of Clif and of Velo Vino have a home on Ink Grade. So that probably explains the appearance of these very authentic looking roadside markers in that setting. I haven't looked into it, but I'm guessing some enterprising folks in France have begun marketing these markers with whatever info you want to put on them. They're good quality and appear indistinguishable from the real ones in France. I guess I can't expect to see more of them proliferating around the North Bay, alas. But I'll take what I can get! Perhaps someone else will see them—or read about them—and feel inspired to place them on an epic climb in their own neighborhood.

Okay then…three little loose ends tidied up a bit. Two fairly positive and one not so much. Time to move on. Now that we have the doors and windows open to the fresh spring breezes, let's get out there and log some miles.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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