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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  12/1/2004

Weather or Not to Ride

"The coldest winter of my life was a summer I spent in San Francisco."
--Mark Twain

Now, Sam Clemens was a pretty savvy type. After all, he was the same guy who said, "Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live." But I guess he didn't stick around the Bay Area long enough to witness the one day broiling/next day shivering Indian summer. Or winter when it's warmer on the coast than inland. Or spring when just about anything goes.

Actually, pretty much anything goes around here, any time of year. No winter snow, you say? I've slushed through the stuff in the Santa Cruz Mountains more than once. Even within a mile of Monterey Bay. But that was years before I became addicted to bicycling -- thank goodness.

What's really galling is what happened to us in October. We'd planned a club ride for west Marin to sample cheeses and oysters between Pt. Reyes Station and Petaluma. But the not always reliable U.S. Weather Service was confident of a 50% chance of rain all over the nine-county region. So we cancelled the ride. But just in case someone dediced to show up, we drove up to Nicasio with the route sheets. Sure enough, one couple had called relatives in Mill Valley and gotten the go-ahead. Because, sure enough, the weather in Marin was bright and sunny and warm. All day long. And down in the South Bay, where we live, it rained. All day long.

Microclimates, we call them. And micro they certainly can be. Take the last weekend in October, when we started a ride from Mill Valley. The sun was shining on Miller Avenue. We made a turn at Camino Ramon and it wasn't. It was foggy. A little further on and it was just a little cloudy. Then the sun came out again, but if you blinked, you might have missed it. By the time we'd climbed Camino Ramon to Chapman, it was pretty warm. Once we got down and around to China Camp State Park, it was cold. Hey, it was Marin -- up to four (count them, 4) microclimates in one.

It's not like places where many of us grew up back east. I remember clear, crisp autumn days that stayed clear and crisp all day long, from one end of Blair County, PA, to the other. And winter weeks when the below-freezing temperatures kept the ice and slush on the roads from Pittsburgh to Philly.

Here, however, we can never be sure from September to May or June. The forecast calls for a 30% chance of rain and it pours, but only in 30% of the Bay Area. The problem is that inevitably that 30% will pretty much cover the exact roads or trails you are on that very same day.

Complain not, lest ye trade places

Pity poor Fred Matheny, one of the evil genii behind RoadBikeRider.com. It was already snowing his Colorado hometown by November, but he claimed not to be sad. Yeah, right. Fred says he can predict with pretty accurate confidence just how long he can ride on any given day. And what given days he can get a good ride in.

Besides, Fred's a big advocate of rest and crosstraining at this time of year. If the weather is nasty, he lifts weights, goes snowshoeing or takes a nap. Those are great choices to have.

The nap's about all we can come up with for last-minute microclimate planning. Provided we're not caught out in a downpour at the time.

Like the fine spring day many, many years ago when an optimistic group of us set out for the San Mateo County coast. We reached Half Moon Bay in record time. That's when we noticed the white cirro-cumulus clouds known as "mare's tails." "Bet it rains somewhere around here in the next couple of days," spake our leader's voice of experience. Well, in less than an hour it was pouring on us as we struggled up La Honda Road towards Skyline Drive.

There's just no second-guessing those microclimates. Except for the inland-to-seashore winter temperature gradient switch. If there's no storm out over the Pacific howling its way to our shores, or one has recently taken its treacherous path to the Great Basin, it's a given that the weather is much more pleasant at the ocean than it is in the inland valleys.

You know those days I mean. Highs in the around 70 in Pacifica. Yes, Pacifica, where the summertime highs rarely top 60. Half Moon Bay stretching to 75 after a summer of chilly fog stretching all along Highway 92.

There are folks up in Sonoma who refer to these aberrations as "secret summer." It may be gray and damp as close near Sebastopol or Santa Roas but along Bodega Bay it's sunny and warm. Maybe. You'd better check it out first.

Who you gonna dial up?

My favorite online weather outlook source is Weather Underground.

A quick entry and click get me at least two independent forecasts for any ZIP code, metro area, state or even country. I bookmark these locations so I can return instantly. Better yet, Weather Underground links to local home and school weather observatories, publishing their hourly stats. When I access my hometown page, I get observations from around the corner (literally) to the Santa Cruz Mountains. There's even a station at popular mountain biking venue Almaden Quicksilver Park.

Typing in "Santa Rosa" also fetches conditions in Guereneville, Healdsburg and Windsor. "San Rafael" pulls up Muir Beach, several San Francisco locations, and Berkeley. "Livermore" yields Fremont, Dublin, Pleasanton (including the primo cycling "vineyard corridor") and even Milpitas. And so forth.

If I want to see exactly what's happening on my local mountaintops, I can try Skyline Boulevard Weather Information, for the temperature, pressure, wind speed and direction, wind chill, humidity, and dew point at that very moment.

For local Monterey and San Benito County conditions, Eric from Salinas recommends the KSBW Channel's weather page. It's indeed quite comprehensive, with details for Monterey, Salinas, Watsonville and even Fremont Peak.

Of course, one can always go directly to the source at NOAA's National Weather Service web site for San Francisco and Monterey Bay Area forecasts. They cover both regions, from Sonoma and Napa south to the Salinas Valley and San Benito County, including the percent chances of precipitation. That's what originally gave me the idea to cancel any club ride I lead if there's a 30% or greater chance of rain.

There's a bit of a problem with relying on NOAA, however. Rarely do these folks publish forecasts more than twice a day. And apparently they work out of a government building in Monterey with no windows. So they never see what the weather is just outside their offices.

Yes, there's always The Weather Channel, which has recreational forecasts for golf, national parks, boat-and-beach, and skiing. No cycling help though. Ah, who needs 'em?

Besides, as I'm drafting this column it's raining. Oh, no, it isn't; the sun is shining! And there's another big, black front heading this way over Montebello Ridge. Oh well, guess it's time to haul out the trainer. Or take a Colorado-style nap.

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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