Friday, April 3, 2009

Tour of California Part III

On Sunday, March 22nd, Justin Angle and I caught a Southwest flight to Oakland, CA and embarked upon a very challenging five days of cycling. Having already ridden the entire west coast on two separate solo trips, I thought it would be fun to cycle with Justin in the Santa Rosa area, near his old Bay Area stomping ground.

We have Justin’s friend Kieran to thank for a place to stay in San Franciso the first night, as well as on Friday night when we returned. Kieran and Jen showed us a few great restaurants and neighborhoods, and Kieran led us out of town by riding with us Monday morning.

I’m going to try and write a summary of this trip, as opposed to the daily blogs I did for my June 08 European cycling trip (blog entries starting with 7-10-08).

I can see why a number or current and past professionals have used Santa Rosa as a training base. After doing these climbs, the Tour de France would seem easy! I’m going to write about what I think this area has to offer for people who ride without cars following them around to block traffic.

First off, a little perspective is in order. Justin is an elite level endurance athlete (who likely could have a car following him around if he had chosen that path) and an extremely strong rider, and rarely did he express the need for a gear lower than the 34/23 he had available. He also is 34 and solidly in the endurance prime of his life, and he was able to do the long miles for five straight days, and still recover well enough that he could go at the climbs at a pretty hard effort level. That wasn’t an option for me (although there was no “easy” way up the majority of the climbs), as the combination of early season form, the long days, and the sustained climbing at 12-16% (with pitches up to 20%) forced me into day to day survival mode. Luckily, I chose to take my new steel bike with low gearing. The suppleness of a steel frame would also prove to be helpful, but not able to totally mitigate some very rough roads we were to encounter.

Despite making it look pretty easy, Justin does describe the area roads as “butch” on his blog:

Even if I had the best form of my life (which occurred after I returned from my June 2008 European trip), and even if I gave the hardest routes a fully rested one day shot, I really don’t think that I would have enjoyed the riding much more. The climbs are that hard—perhaps too hard for a multiday trip, at least for me. Combined with the difficulty of the grades and having to dodge potholes on the way up, having to ride extremely defensively on the way down due to the steepness and poor road surfaces guaranteed some very mentally and physically taxing days.

As a matter of fact, my average daily speeds were higher in the Dolomites, French Alps, and Pyrenees than they were for the brutally steep climbing days Justin and I racked up.

Waaaah, let’s get on with it.

We have local cycling guru extraordinaire Bill Oetinger to thank for his help with our daily route selection. Bill is the Ride Director of the Santa Rosa Cycling Club:

The Santa Rosa Cycling Club is the host club for the Terrible Two, one of the hardest double centuries in the country. This event must make the STP look like a walk in the park!

Bill has been involved with many regional cycling developments over the years, including the excellent Sonoma County Bicycle Map. We asked Bill to list the three most classic very hard rides in the area, and he delivered in spades.

Day 1—first we had to get there—90 miles/8500’ climbing/Route Quality 10 (of 10)/Difficulty 10 (20-25 mph headwinds didn’t help):

Start (Kieran’s place in the Inner Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco)-Presidio-Golden Gate Bridge-Sausalito-Mill Valley-Fairfax-Mt. Tam-Nicasio-Wilson Hill-Sebastopol

Since we were already on its flanks, we diverted off of our route to top out on Mt. Tam at 3000’ elevation, making it a 2500’ climb; well, technically a 3000’ climb from San Francisco.

After a spectacular exit from the city over the Golden Gate Bridge, the Tam climb was hard but a lot of fun. After the descent we then fought, and I do mean fought, really strong headwinds the whole way to our base camp town of Sebastopol.

Day 2—King Ridge/Meyers Grade/Coleman Valley Loop—95 miles/8500’ climbing/Quality 6/Difficulty 10+ (still a 10 even without the many poor road surfaces):

Sebastopol-Occidental-Monte Rio-Cazadero-King Ridge Rd-Meyers Grade Rd (the “elevator shaft”—what goes up, must come down—at a sustained 15-18%--nice ocean views, but kind of hard to peek)-Jenner-Coastal Highway 1-Coleman Valley Road (what goes down, must go up—740’ in 1.3 miles=10.8% average grade—what “valley”?)-Occidental-Sebastopol.

Today featured sensational moments spliced before and after a lot of grueling riding on poor surfaces. Descending on the “Elevator Shaft” we dropped from 1500’ to the Pacific Ocean on a good road. Coleman Valley Rd was not even the steepest climb of the day, but it was the most psychologically jarring, coming as it did after eight miles of sensational tailwind riding down Highway 1. Imagine doing multiple climbs of Zoo Road, Somerset, Montreaux, Squak Mountain, then make them steeper, and put them in the middle of a 100 mile ride. That’s how it felt at times, no; make that a lot of the time, on this trip.

Day 3—Alexander Valley/Geysers Loop—105 miles/7500’ climbing—Quality 8/Difficulty 8 (with one 10+ climb to bump up the average):

Sebastopol-Windsor-Healdsburg-Cloverdale-Geysers Rd-Jimtown-Chalk Hill Rd-Santa Rosa-Sebastopol

The day started with enjoyable riding into a milder north headwind through the wine country. We then did a pretty mellow climb on rough roads on Geysers Rd; mellow until the last pitch which gained 620’ in a mile for an average grade of 11.8%. Thankfully, the long descent to Jimtown was wonderful, and the views were as nice as the road.

Day 4—Cavedale/Spring Mountain Loop—90 miles/6500’ climbing—Quality 6 (docked from an 8 because of a mildly terrifying car riddled stretch with no shoulder on Calistoga Rd)/Difficulty 10

Sebastopol-Santa Rosa-Oakmont-Glen Ellen-Cavedale Rd climb-Oakdale-St. Helena-Spring Mountain Rd climb-Santa Rosa-Sebastopol

Today featured two HARD climbs, one of them enjoyable, with the other one ranking towards the top of a list of the least enjoyable roads I have ever ridden. Bill led us all the way from Sebastopol until the town of Glen Ellen. I realized why he split the scene as we started up the Cavedale Rd climb.

Cavedale is a 2000’ climb through the trees on a horribly surfaced, yet almost car free road (only the few locals would want to drive on this goat path) with no views, save for one brief glimpse of the distant San Francisco skyline.

There, I said it-it sucked. The average grade of 8.5% with sustained sections of 10% would have seemed easy compared to what we had done in previous days had I not had to focus more attention on navigating through the deep potholes than on pedaling. The steepest section (20%) occurred right before the top, and that only added insult to injury. Rarely do I find a climb that I do not ever want to repeat. Cavedale qualifies, and the descent over equally rough pavement was hand numbing to boot.

Contrast that with the pleasant riding that followed in the Napa Valley, albeit with a stout headwind, and yet there were more shocks to follow. Justin had asked Bill for advice on how to extend the day’s riding, and he headed east up Sage Canyon Rd., while I decided to go have lunch in the touristy town of St. Helena.

Almost as soon as Justin started up what turned out to be a 27 mile/2500’ climbing extension, he had the single flat of the week. I had the only pump, and he had the only phone! Doh! Justin had just started the long walk when he was rescued by a helpful pickup driver with a floor pump.

I held down a window table at the deli, expecting Justin to surface soon from the expected 12-15 mile loop. He got a lot more than he bargained for, and Justin admitted that he dropped a few f-bombs along the way. When he showed up salt encrusted and near bonking, I was pretty content with my decision to stick to the basic loop.

After sitting for a few hours, the Spring Mountain Rd climb came as a very rude awakening, yet coming on shaded smooth road, it was quite enjoyable. We chalked up another 1700’ of climbing, the main section of which had an average grade of 11.33%. With a max grade of only 16.5%, this one seemed almost benign! The 3 miles of gravel road riding in the last 10 miles of the ride made it seem like we were finishing up Paris-Roubaix.

Day 5: Return trip—82 miles/6000’—Quality 10/Difficulty 7

Sebastopol-Valley Ford-Tomales-Pt. Reyes Station-Bolinas-Stinson Beach-Pantol-Sausalito-Golden Gate Bridge-San Francisco

With the exception of Stinson Beach, today we had a mild tailwind, and the climbs were not as steep. The longest climb of the day took us from sea level to Pantol at 1500’ with an average grade of 7.2%. With temperatures near 80, and stunning ocean views, this climb was one that I wish I could do weekly, which is close to how often Justin must have done it when he lived in Mill Valley. Traversing the Golden Gate Bridge late on a weekday afternoon is a little sketchy, given the free for all the east path becomes with pedestrians from all over the world. If we would have arrived a little later, the west side path would have been open for cyclists only.

This trip was the third “tour” that Justin and I have done together, and overall, we had a great time. The weather was warm, and most of the time we were on bike friendly roads. Nevertheless, this is not a trip I care to repeat. Riding the California coast a few years ago was fantastic, but I think the next base camp type trip I do in California may be in the Solvang area.


padre angulo said...

I think next year I'm gonna go with the 11-21 instead!

Cascade Cyclist said...

Awesome trip.

Talk with Mark Clausen--he rode in Solvang this spring.

I rode in the Santa Barbara area last March and it's awesome down there as well.