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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  2/1/2021

Dream Globally; Meander Locally

Last month I said this about the coming weeks, mostly with respect to politics and current events: “It’s hard to predict how it will play out. Perhaps it will all fizzle out into a few whimpers and feeble squabbles. Then again, it may blow up into something so cataclysmic our lives will never be the same again.”

So…whaddya think? Feeble squabbles or cataclysm? It was an interesting month, for sure. I’ll let the historians—and the FBI—decide the full scope of what just went down. But at the moment, in spite of some deeply disturbing events along the way, it feels as if we’re trending toward better things, brighter days. We live in hope.

And in spite of the struggles and quarrels of little men, the planets keep to their appointed rounds and the seasons move along. We’re well past the darkest days of Winter—literally as well as figuratively—and we can see the sun shining somewhere ahead. (For the record, it’s raining in Northern California as I write this and the forecast is for more of the same for at least the next week. And thank goodness for that…our drought-parched world so needs the rain.) 

But after our thirsty world has soaked up as much water as the weather gods will grant us, we’ll be ready for sunshine, dry roads, and the promise of a new season that will eventually wobble back to some facsimile of how our lives used to be…something we can recognize and embrace as “normal.” In anticipation of that happy tomorrow, I am ready to roll out some miles and to try and shed those extra few pounds that snuck in around my middle during these long months of lockdown.

For the time being, I’m still going to adhere to my cautious approach: keep the rides close to home and relatively short. Bigger rides in more distant venues await. Be patient. We’ll get there soon. Meanwhile, juice up your local rides with some little embellishments to keep them fresh and to keep you motivated and energized. One way I find to enhance and mildly expand my local rides is exploring dead-ends…out-&-backs.

Back in May of 2002, I banged out a column in this space titled In praise of out-&-backs. It appeared a long time ago and maybe you missed it. If you did or if you read it then and want to refresh the topic, there’s the link. I just reread it and I think it still says most of the things I want to say about riding up and down little roads to nowhere. I won’t drag out all those talking points again.

But the general idea of the value of out-&-backs came to me—again—during this season of rides close to home. Close to home and often solo or in very small groups. For example, a basic ride for me from Sebastopol to Healdsburg is about 40 miles via the typical Westside-Eastside loop. I can make it a 50-mile loop by heading up Dry Creek Road to Lambert Bridge and back south on Dry Creek, etc. But I’ve done both those loops soooo many times. It’s hard to get excited about the same old same old, even if it’s the same old cycling in paradise.

So, how to add a little spice…a new wrinkle? One way is out-&-backs. They’re out there in their dozens and most have at least some interest and perhaps some challenge. Add a 20-mile round trip on Mill Creek to a basic Westside-Eastside loop and we’re talking serious challenge. But they don’t have to be that butch. In addition to all the public dead-ends, there are numerous paved roads that are glorified driveways: private but open to the public.

If you never think to explore these, you might be surprised at how many miles of good riding are hiding in plain sight in your backyard. In the so-called Wine Country of the North Bay, winery driveways are a classic case in point. The wealthy winery owner builds his picturesque chateau—with tasting room—way back up the hill, nestled in among his many acres of vines, and paves a handsome approach road to get there. If the tasting room is open to the public, so will the road be. Usually the pavement will be better than the nearby roads and the scenery will be above average as well…all the best scenery that money can buy. If you live in or near Napa or Sonoma Counties, you will find an almost inexhaustible supply of such spurs off your main drags.

I’m not going to entangle myself in the question of whether winery tasting rooms welcome cyclists (who can’t buy a case of wine and take it with them on their bikes). I’ve lost track of the current state of that market and I can’t recall the last time I actually visited a tasting room. Back in the ‘70s, my wife contributed design work and graphics to a book called Grape Expeditions which was about biking along the roads of the wine country on what amounted to drinking sprees…stopping at every winery for as many free tots as they would pour. The cover of the book featured a ten-speed with a wine bottle in the bidon cage. I’m pretty sure those days are long gone. I’m not suggesting your rides include any boozing at all. Just meanders up and back along the pretty driveways.

Two recent explorations of such driveways are what got me thinking about this column. Both are out around Jimtown in Alexander Valley, just north of Healdsburg. They are far from the only such candidates for little voyages of discovery but they’re good examples of what’s out there. One is the access road to Jordan Winery. It’s about a mile long and gains around 200’ of elevation on the way up to the handsome winery complex…a moderate climb that then turns into a zippy descent on the way back to Alexander Valley Road. The other is the drive to Stonestreet Winery in the heart of Alexander Valley. This one is also around a mile, one way, but is almost dead level with just the slightest false flat feeling. The entire drive is lined with a colonnade of handsome sycamore trees, looking like a country lane in Provence.

The day I did the Stonestreet driveway, I was lucky enough to happen upon a swarm of starlings. Have you ever seen these birds swarming? It’s quite a sight: several thousand birds all flying in a massive ball, like a school of fish, all turning and wheeling in response to some group-mind we barely comprehend. Such a swarm is called a Murmuration. What a wonderful word and what a wonderful—really, almost a holy—phenomenon to encounter. I’ve seen such swarms before but what made this one even more interesting was that a red-tail was gliding across the sky nearby and a mini-murmuration of about 50 starlings split off from the main mass and took out after the hawk, flying along in a little ball, directly above and behind the big bird as a self-appointed posse of air marshals. 

You never know what you’re going to happen upon when you take your bike out for a spin. We may head out for the exercise or to blow off the fug of cabin fever, but little treats like a mumuration of starlings are the frosting on the cake…the wonderful moments that make our souls sing hosannas.

So okay…those two driveways only add four miles total to whatever your base ride for the day was. Perhaps that’s all you need—and the quantity of the miles might not be as important as the quality of the miles—but these are only two of the myriad little lanes out there, waiting for our wheels to roll along them. Before we start thinking about the big tours we can do in Tuscany or Provence or the centuries we can ride somewhere around the greater Bay Area; before we are back to doing the things we used to take for granted, consider the humble out-&-back as a stepping stone on the path to ramping up…a few little detours and a few more miles with each ride.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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