I like commuter trains. Well, trains in general I should say, but I like the convenience of well planned trains for getting around urban areas. Recently I discovered Seattle has a great train that runs to and from the airport that I had never used on previous trips. Tried it on the last trip up there and it was great. And a couple of bucks in comparison to the usual $40-50 cab fare into the city. I’ve used BART many a time to do the same kind of trip from the airport into the heart of San Francisco. But, I had never taken Austin’s relatively new commuter rail.

I hadn’t previously planned to go out of my way to ride the train. It’s not close to me and its schedule is such that it’s virtually useless to me on a routine basis. Kinda sad because it’s some fantastic infrastructure. So why bother? The logistics of a Friday car repair had me leaving one of my cars downtown at the office while I got a lift out to pick up the repaired car. So, I could trouble someone to give me a lift back downtown to get the other car or I could think of something else. I wanted to get in a bike ride anyway on Saturday so it occurred to me, why not ride over to the train and check it out. It goes right downtown. Cost for the one way trip: $2.75.

So I rode the 12 or so miles over to the Lakeline station in far northwest Austin. It was the easiest station to get to from my place. Cycling over to the Lakeline station in NW Austin is not hard and yet I would guess most people would have no interest. It’s not near much of anything other than Avery Ranch and the roads you have to take to get there are heavily traveled by cars going pretty fast. But at least there are back roads (not 183 or its frontage) that you can take to get there. But I did have to take hwy 620, which I hate to ride on. Way too much traffic. So it’s doable but really annoying.

The schedule on a Saturday is odd as far as I’m concerned. The earliest train on a Saturday from Lakeline starts at 4:48pm. If it went earlier, I bet they would get riders. The downtown is a growing and vibrant part of the city and moreso every day. People would go there during the day on a Saturday.

I wondered whether I would be the only one riding the train. Clearly not. The train is two cars long and the one I was in had at least 20 people in it by the time we headed south into the city. And we picked up more riders at ever stop. By the time we got downtown, the train was full and both bike racks were filled. You can see my bike hanging within the car in one of the photos here. There are only two racks in each car. The alternative is to stand with the bike while you ride. There’s limited space to do that but it certainly seems like it wouldn’t be hard.

There were 8 stops (including Lakeline where I got on and the downtown stop) along the way. Once we got going I was impressed that the train actually picked up some pretty good speed between some of the stations – particularly the ones further out. Total time to get downtown was somewhere in the neighborhood of 40-45 min. Along the way we went through parts of the city I almost never see, and it literally goes through a lot of people’s back yards in north and east Austin.

There’s not likely to be too many reasons I need to go out of my way to ride the Austin Metrorail – me and most of anyone that lives west of Mopac – and yet I think it’s a great start. Now if it just went to the airport, I bet I would use it.

Last photo: ‘end of the line’ next to the convention center in downtown Austin.

Work occasionally takes me to Seattle, and not just to greater Seattle but downtown Seattle. I enjoy visiting. There are always interesting food and drink choices in our off hours. I like to stay at the Andra and this trip that’s just where I landed. Though I did have one night at the nearby Warwick due to a scheduling snafu. The Warwick is nice too. I just like the Andra better. Maybe it’s because the restaurant Lola is connected to the hotel and they have the best breakfast going that I’ve found in that area – though the prices are ridiculous.

There’s only one non-stop flight from Austin to Seattle (on Alaska Airlines) and it’s definitely the way to go. With business to attend to Monday, Sunday would have been the day to fly but that flight was booked up so I just decided to go on Saturday. Gave me a chance to see a little more of Seattle that I do on a typical whirlwind trip to the area. So I had the whole day Sunday to bum around.

Now, that would have been a lot easier had it been a little warmer. Temps never got above freezing that Sunday but although it was cold, the sun came out and that made all the difference in making it pretty comfortable to get around town by foot. I felt a little bad for the thousands of people that came out that Sunday morning early for the annual Jingle Bell run. At that time of the morning – around 8am – it was probably closer to 20 degrees.

I spent the bulk of my day after a leisurely breakfast wandering around Pike Place market. See photo of pepper wreath at right and the one at the bottom of this post. Every time I’ve ever been there it’s been bustling and given this was a weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas it was jammed with people. The cold weather didn’t keep anyone away. Aside from the usual fish, fruit, veggies and flowers there were a lot of craftspeople selling their wares.

With the weather cold I was up for a warm beverage. People stand in line at the Pike Place market starbucks because it is known as the 1st starbucks. (Though I read that lore is perhaps not 100% accurate.) I wasn’t going to stand in line – beside which I’d been there many years before – so I pulled into Local Color – another coffee joint down the street. I had had so much coffee earlier in the morning I opted for a decaf tea so I don’t really know if their coffee is any good.

Prize for the nicest looking coffee place I think I have ever seen goes to Storyville, which is also in the Pike Place market area. This place is like a ski lodge. I stumbled across it late in the evening during the work week and wasn’t up for a coffee at the hour but, wow, I have to check this place out on the next visit.

Having said all of the above, my favorite coffee joint I have gone to now a few times is Moore Coffee Shop. It is a crackerbox of little place. The coffee is fantastic though. On this trip I noticed it had expanded in size a bit though. They have opened the space between the coffee shop and The Moore Hotel. If that was open before, I don’t remember it.

The photo of the bar here is from the Black Bottle. This is a place I’ve been to several times now. They bill it as “casual tavern serving rustic fare made from scratch” and I guess I’d agree with that. The wine list is nice and they serve small plates so you can try a variety of things. I see this trend in restaurants pretty much everwhere I go. It’s certainly become popular here in Austin. Anyway, I like this place and hope to return again some time.

The photo of the space needle here was one I snagged early one morning late in the week. The weather had warmed up and was misty that morning. It was hard to tell whether the sun was up or not – clouds were that thick. At this point in the week I was at the Warwick and from my room the space needle was prominently on display out my window. This photo was taken with a slighly telephoto lens so I look like I might have been closer to the needle than I actually was.

These were all taken at or near my place last weekend. The weather last weekend was quite nice in comparison to today – a week later. It was like 80+ last weekend and this weekend 40 degrees and raining. What a switch.

These were all taken with a 45mm macro lens on an Olympus OM-D EM-1. Not that tells you a lot if you’d just rather look at the photos.

PB170005

fall-butterfly

anole lizard

This one of some leaves was actually taken just yesterday. It’s surprisingly bright considering there was little to no sun out yesterday. It was a cloudy and cold (high 30′s) day. Fall color this year seems to be pretty muted and you have to go looking for it.

fall color 2013

Day 6 of the bike tour was the last day and as such it was going to be relatively short. We needed to finish by late morning in time for a farewell lunch at noon and a shuttle at 1pm.

I opted for the 27 mile loop that took in the Oakville Grade. Figured might as well get in a workout that morning. Only a few of us took that option. Some shuttled in the van to the top of Oakville Grade and rode the rest. A couple opted to just take in the spa at the hotel. But the weather was once again great so why not get one more good ride in. As you can see from the elevation profile, the Oakville Grade is something of a wall to climb up. Temps were in the 40′s that morning but as you might imagine climbing that grade worked up a bit of a sweat. Click thru the image for all the Garmin info.

The rest of the route was easy and pleasant – except for the section on the Silverado Trail. Plenty of shoulder on the side of the road to ride in but just lots of traffic. And of course after a week of riding and only a few miles left to go, I managed to get a flat tire. After fixing that, only a few miles left to go.

Below you’ll see a birds eye view of all the routes of the bike tour. We covered a pretty good chunk of the area. I’d really like to go back again some time and do some of these roads again and maybe take in some others we never got to.

The Sonoma coastal area offers the quieter roads I would say. It’s hard to get too far in the Napa area without encountering quite a bit of traffic. But the roads in Napa County are better maintained.

This was an excellent tour for guys like me that wanted lots of options to choose from. You could ride longer or more challenging routes if you wanted or just do a short one and van the rest of the way if that’s what you wanted. The overnight stays were great, the food was great and the tour leads were helpful. I rarely actually rode with any of them though.

I think Backroads does this tour very frequently through the summer. And during the peak, I think they’re over lapping tours. The inns and wineries must love the bookings/visits. None of the places we stopped though seemed like they were tired of what must be a constant stream of cyclists throughout the year. Especially the wineries that were on the agenda. In fact, they seemed to go out of their way to cater to us.

Now to figure out what the next bike tour might be…

Day 5 of the bike tour was the best of both worlds. At the start, coming out of Yountville there was very little chance of avoiding the Silverado Trail to get to, first, the Sage Canyon Road and then subsequently the Chiles Pope Valley Rd. There were choices this morning and once again I opted for what I hoped would be the most scenic and least traveled roads.

You can see the route I took here. As with other mornings this week, it started chilly and overcast. Yount Mill Rd was a beautiful start to things though.

The St Helena Hwy was a different story though. Lots of traffic. Thankfully, a nice wide shoulder. Same could be said of the Silverado Trail. Lots of traffic. The shoulder is identified as a bike lane though so that’s at least helpful but the heavy truck and car traffic whizzes by pretty fast.

The turn off onto Sage Canyon Rd then up to Lake Hennessey is a welcome change of pace. I was chilled to the bone that morning (temps in the 40′s) but things seemed to start to climb a bit after the turn so that helped me warm up.

That 5th day, the only person that wanted to take the option with me was Mark. We had a good time riding this section of road. Very scenic and enjoyable. The reason it wasn’t so popular with our fellow riders was it was going to entail climbing over Ink Grade Rd. That was indeed a long climb, but the grade was better than some others we had done and it was up a quiet country road with little traffic so it was fine. Weather was ideal by that point because not only had it warmed up a bit by that point we were working up a sweat.

After we crested the climb, it was a fantastic curvy descent down into St Helena. Along the way, we stopped and I took the above photo of the valley. Too bad I couldn’t manage to get the camera out in time to take photos of the deer that were up ahead of us at one point and ran up the hill.

St Helena was bustling. Lots of traffic in town but at least it was moving slowly. It was pretty clear from the morning ‘route wrap’ that the tour van and therefore the primary meet-up point would be Gott’s. It’s a roadside burger joint that seems to be really popular. Not that they just have burgers. In this case, I got the California grilled chicken burger – and fries of course. I think this must be one of the original Gott’s. It seems to now be a chain. In fact, I went to the one at the Ferry building in San Franciso and took this photo from there.

I could have easily finished the ride back to Yountville at this point but given it was all along the St Helena Hwy, its only promise was going to be heavy traffic so I bagged it after my lunch and just grabbed the van back to the Villagio in Yountville.

The weather had turned nice in the afternoon after such a chilly start to the day. I grabbed the following photo just outside the Villagio in Yountville after a nice visit to the spa’s hot tub.

By day 4 we’d become pretty accustomed to chilly and foggy mornings. This morning was no exception. The fog was very thick. Again, I was really happy to have brought along so many layering options – and a flashing red tail light. We typically left by 8:30 and that was the plan this morning too so the fog and early morning light left it fairly dark out. Here’s the route for the day.

Breakfast at the Madrona Manor was buffet style and very European in style. Lots of cut meats and cheeses. There was also a varient of Chilaquiles that I’d have to say I wasn’t a big fan of. Regardless, there was plenty of tasty stuff to fuel the day.

Despite the fog, which was going to burn off pretty quickly, the ride up West Dry Creek Rd from Healdsburg area was a really pleasant ride. Highly recommended.

At the point we crossed Hwy 101, things got less interesting to look at until we got past Geyserville. That was a nice section of road as well but more highly trafficked than the early morning. Lots and lots of pleasant vineyards to look at along this section. And in fact a winery along that route, Robert Young Estate Winery, was our lunch stop for the day.

It was a pretty long lunch stop. The weather was fantastic and had warmed up by that point. We never really got into the tasting room. We were greeted with early tastings of wine and also fresh pressed Cabernet. See the picture above. It didn’t taste exactly like grape juice you might buy at the grocery store but it was definitely fresh juice but tasted nothing like the wine it will eventually become.

Backroads put on the usual spread for lunch – wow. While we munched on that there were tastings of multiple Chardonnay’s, Merlot and Cabernet. All really excellent.

With all the food and wine, there was a fair amount of lingering at lunch before getting back on the bike. I opted to take the Franz Valley Road option that day. Much less traffic than Hwy 128 and much more scenic. Also much hillier! If you check out the elevation profile of the route you’ll find a big climb in there. From the top of hill on that route it changed from Sonoma to Napa county and was a pleasant descent into Calistoga. Napa county maintains their roads better than Sonoma and there was a stark difference between the lumpy pot-holed climb and the smooth descent. Locals apparently lament the disparity.

I landed in Calistoga to find the van just about to shuttle some people into Yountville and I’d been told the rest of the day’s route was more highly trafficked highway (with a shoulder) but that didn’t sound all that appealing. I’d already done 50 miles so why not just go enjoy the hot tub at the Villagio in Yountville? That’s exactly what I did.

It became readily apparent after day 2 that bike fit was going to be an issue. I thought I had placed things reasonably well when I took off that first day but it’s really better to actually measure things and I wish I had. With the climbing on the 2nd day and a seat that was positioned too low, the back of my right knee took on more than it usually does. Consequently, it was pretty well torqued by the 3rd morning. The damp, foggy and cold morning only exacerbated things. So despite being an otherwise awe inspiring ride up Hwy 1 to start the morning, it was also a painful one. I took some pain reliever after a bit and it helped some. I also raised the seat – again. And it was something I did a few more times before finally arriving at a point that felt like it was right.

Our start that morning was back up Hwy 1 till we got to the turnoff toward Guerneville. There were only a few of us that chose that option and only two of us rode together along Hwy 1 until we got to Duncan Mills. (The other had left earlier to take in the Cazadero hwy route.) Here’s the whole route for the day.

The fog broke enough along the way to snag this pic of the coast though. And maybe because it was mid week, the traffic along hwy 1 was pretty light that morning. It turned out to be a really nice morning ride.

By the time we rounded the turn and made our way to Guerneville, the weather had improved dramatically. Another sunny day at hand. It certainly hadn’t warmed up much though.

We veered off to detour into Armstrong Redwood State Natural Reserve. It’s a beautiful park of old redwoods. We lunched there before heading on. In the shade of the trees it was downright chilly. Was glad to get back on the bike and into the sun.

On this day I took the Green Valley Road option and like other options, it was a scenic route with very little traffic. Eventually it joined up with the route most everyone else was taking and that was up the Westside Road. I’ve been up that road before tasting wines back in 2010 so it was familiar looking territory. Taking the option put me behind the others so when I arrived at Arista Winery to taste some wine most everyone else was just leaving.

Arista had some great Pinot Noir and was a nice spot to just park for a bit. Nice views there. Warm temps. Later, I rode on with Maureen, the ‘sweeper’ lead for the day.

From that point to our stay at Madrona Manor, it was a relatively short ride.

All in, a 57 mile day. We enjoyed a wine tasting and dinner at the restaurant at the Madrona Manor that night. We never did get into Healdsburg. (I went back on the weekend after the tour to see a bit of Healdsburg though.) This old house was very cool but considering we were so close to Halloween more than a few of us thought the house was just a little creepy looking. And yet, I slept fine that night after all those miles and a belly full of good food and wine.

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