Friday, December 24, 2010

The Counterbalance

Over the last nine+ years of living in Downtown Seattle I’ve managed to ride up most of the steep little climbs around town. Always in the back of mind was the fact that I had not ridden up the Counterbalance (officially Queen Anne Avenue) on the south side of Queen Anne. The tracks are long since gone, but 120 years ago an electric streetcar was a popular form of transportation up Queen Anne hill.

The Counterbalance was a heavy 16-ton weight attached to a cable that would move the opposite direction to the travel of the street car. Due to the steepness of the street, the weight was required to assist the electric cars in climbing the hill and ease the pressure on the brakes on the downhill bound cars:

Queen Anne Avenue is one of those odd streets where there are no lane division markings. It’s really about a three lane street, but drivers almost arbitrarily use it as either a two or four lane, depending on traffic and time of the day. Because of this, I never really had much of an urge to ride up the Counterbalance, and rarely did I ride down it. Walking up and down the street gave me a pretty good feel for how it might be on a bike.

A few Sunday mornings ago, I managed to convince Reg N. to meet me at the bottom of the hill. Just as with Onion Valley in the Sierras (David L and I added a day to do this one); I guess I figured my Curriculum Vitae wouldn’t be complete without this steep little bugger. While not nearly as long as the climbs out at Cougar and Squak Mountain, it’s still a nice little test piece.

There are plenty of one block wonders around town. There are many very steep blocks all around Queen Anne, and some short steep pitches in the Montlake/Interlaken area. The south side of Somerset in Bellevue has some super steep blocks, and the trip up the cobbles on Virginia from Pike Place Market goes at 19+%.

None of these tiny climbs compare to the .5 mile long Counterbalance, where the crux .25 mile section averages nearly 15%. Here is how I rank the short but sweet climbs around town, at least the ones that come to mind:

1) Counter Balance on Queen Anne
2) Seattle View Hill south of Downtown Renton
3) West Dravus St. on the east side of Magnolia

I certainly can’t compare the Counterbalance to Onion Valley, White Mountain Rd, or Horseshoe Meadows, three monster Sierra climbs I did in CA. Nevertheless, what the CB lacks in length it makes up with steepness. It’s one of those nasty Seattle climbs that you don’t go looking for on a daily basis, but you just have to do…at least once. The Counterbalance is certainly Type II fun; you know; the kind of fun that’s only fun well after it’s over.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Upon Reflection

Thinking about my “near death” experience last Friday still gives me the heebie-jeebies:

I had intended on just trying to forget about it, but something has been gnawing at me all weekend. I did a 60 mile ride today before the rain. It was a beautiful day with almost eerily light traffic, so I had some time to think.

In the way of disclosure, 99% of the reason I write this blog is simply just for me. It’s nice that I have people choose to read what I write, but I write for me. Sometimes I need to vent, as I did in my previous post.

Nevertheless, I do hold myself accountable, and I apologize for my comments about people who have, or may be in the process of losing their jobs. I meant no offense. In fact, I thought I was being clever, which I was not. Even if it was, sometimes being clever isn’t the right thing to be.

Out on the bike today, I tried to process what happened on Friday, what I did, and what I should have done. My conclusion is that it was my fault that the incident occurred at all. If I had been 100% focused on the traffic that was overtaking me, I would have picked up that gold Chevy Luv pickup in my mirror, and I might have had time to act accordingly. The major reason I put up with the occasional “Dorky mirror” comment from cycling buddies is because of the huge safety factor it adds to be able to “profile” the vehicles (especially pickup trucks) behind me. Without a mirror I wouldn’t have even had a clue as to what was about to occur. I don’t know if that truck was hidden in a blind spot behind another car, or if I just failed to pick up the color on an overcast day.

I ride my bike all over the metro area and well beyond, and I have most of the danger spots well categorized in my memory. That little bridge on Issaquah Hobart just south of May Valley Rd. is certainly a hot spot and potentially very dangerous for cyclists. I’m usually hyper vigilant riding that section of road, but this time I let one slip through the cracks. I recall once coming to a complete stop before the bridge while travelling southbound because the overtaking traffic just didn’t feel right.

Last Friday, I just had the miserably timed misfortune to not have 100% focus at the very split instant that one of the “one in a million” asshole drivers spotted me in a very vulnerable spot on the road. You know, the one driver I did not want to be passing me at that time and place with some type of bizarre attitude in his head. “Tommy Timing” was not in play on this one.

I normally don’t have a bad temper. I never threw or broke clubs when I played competitive amateur golf. Yeah, I’d utter the occasional swear word, but I tried to mutter under my breath. The temper does fire up when I feel that my life has been threatened by some moronic fool. It’s difficult for me to control my temper and think rationally in that situation.

There is no way I should have tried to provoke a confrontation with the idiot who close passed buzzed me. I was irate, but I absolutely should have not done what I did. As I mentioned in my previous blog, I shudder to think what possible outcomes could have resulted.

Tracy is acquainted with a very experienced Washington State Patrolman. Here is what the patrolman told us:

"In regards to your question it would be tough to investigate the incident after the fact. I could think of a couple of charges which could be brought against somebody for intentionally driving so close to a bicycle that it forced it off the road. One would be reckless driving and the other would be reckless endangerment. But to prove these or charge them there would have to be a positive ID on the suspect driver. A person could always be given an infraction for negligent driving second degree, but still the driver needs to be ID.

The other thing is, who's jurisdiction does it belong too? The State Patrol can investigate a crime in any jurisdiction. But if the incident occurred on a county road or city street then the local agency has right of first refusal. If the incident occurred on a State Route or Interstate in an unincorporated area then we don't have to ask the locals if they would like to investigate the incident. It really doesn't matter because the locals usually want to give it to us anyway.

The final thing that can be done is a letter can be sent to the registered owner of the car. This letter would advise the RO their car was observed driving recklessly which puts them on notice."

So even if you have a witness (I did, as another driver stopped to see if I was OK), you still have to have a positive ID on the driver. That's tough to do if you only saw the back of his head through the car's back window as he sped away. It's hard just to think clearly enough to get the license plate #. Nevertheless, if this happens again, we will contact the Patrolman to see if he can have a letter sent to the offender.

Making the driver aware that Big Brother is watching is better than nothing.

My Candian friend Johny commented on my last post. He was riding his bike in a small town when a driver actually hit his pedals while passing and just drove away! Somehow he managed to not crash, but he was incredibly frustrated by the lack of response from the local law enforcement agency. Last week, eight cyclists were killed in Southern Italy when run over by an oncoming motorist who was under the influence of marijuana:

As cyclists, we have to face the facts. Cycling and sharing the road with cars is certainly a potentially very dangerous pursuit. Anytime you throw your leg over the toptube, one must assume a definite level of risk.

I am going to continue trying to stack the deck in my favor. As always, I will be super cautious, as visible as possible, and constantly alert. In addition, I am going to continue to be as courteous as I can to car drivers. I view myself as a “professional” cyclist, not in terms of racing, but in terms of commitment. I’m going to act accordingly, even more than I already do.

For some time now on the group rides that I lead, I and the other leaders of the ride have pretty rigidly enforced a policy of stopping at stop signs and rolling away slowly so that trailing riders don’t have to blast through the intersection to stay in contact. The ride goes more smoothly, and we certainly set a better example than many of the groups I see around town.

I’ll continue acknowledging oncoming drivers in rural areas with a friendly nod, and I’ll keep giving a little wave when drivers give me a nice wide berth when passing. When I approach a four way stop with a car perpendicular to me, I slow and wave the car through the intersection, even if I was at the stop first. I guess I figure that by doing that, I may influence that driver to react differently the next time they are sharing the road with a cyclist. Who knows, that cyclist might be me.

Honestly, when it comes right down to it, I get a lot more discouraged by what I see cyclists doing than by car drivers. Although there will always be those occasional jerks who get behind the wheel of vehicles, I am going to do my best as a cyclist not to aggravate them.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Mean Season—it’s that time of the year…again

Around noon yesterday, I was in the middle of my 50 mile ride when I came the closest I have ever been to getting killed while riding my bike. Other than that, it was a great ride. Wait, am I exaggerating? No, I am not. Ahhh, season’s greetings from the most nerve wracking time of the year for me to be on a bike.

I was riding southbound and uphill a half mile south of May Valley on the Issaquah Hobart Road. There is a very short bridge where the shoulder disappears and the road narrows down. I had been glancing in my mirror, gauging the traffic flow to time it so that I could cover the 25 yards or so without a car near me. I thought I had found my gap, and I was pedaling briskly to get across the bridge.

Traffic was a little heavier than normal, and I did my best to monitor the cars overtaking me. Somehow I missed a car. This guy in a pickup came out of nowhere; until I heard the engine being gunned, I had no idea he was there. I did at least get one part of the timing correct. There was no oncoming traffic and this moron had the entire road at his disposal.

There is absolutely no question that the driver intended on terrorizing me with a close buzz. He accelerated to make sure that I didn’t reach the end of the bridge and have room to bail right into the shoulder. My mirror only enabled me to see just how close he was right before he went by. Had I flinched left, I wouldn’t be writing this right now. I often use the mirror in tight situations to get a little clearance by moving slightly left and “walking” overtaking cars out a little. I then move right as they pass. Since I had no idea this guy was there and there was no shoulder, I was just riding near the right edge of the road. There was no more “right” left when he blew by me at 60mph in a 45mph zone.

He might have missed me by a foot. It gives me the creeps to think about how close his right rear view mirror must have been to my head. I was incensed. I immediately gave him the finger; he returned the salute. I did it again, this time an extended version and more emphatically. I heard his tires screech as he nailed the brakes. The adrenaline was surging and I put my head down and started pedaling hard. As I was getting close, he started to pull away. I gave the “bring that shit to me” motion with my right arm; you know, the “get out of your truck and discuss this like a man” gesture. He stopped.

I motioned again as I slowed to a stop just behind him in the shoulder. His response was to nail it in reverse, doing a burnout. At first it appeared that he intended on finishing the job of killing me. I jumped, he stopped, I motioned again, and he drove away.

At the time, I was pissed in so many ways, not the least that he didn’t get out of the truck. I intended to throttle this guy to within an inch of his life, as he had just figuratively done to me. With the adrenaline that was coursing through my veins, at that moment I felt like I could have kicked ass on Genghis Khan, Braveheart, and the Gladiator simultaneously. In retrospect, I‘m certainly glad he drove away. I had such tunnel vision that I had not even looked to see if there was anyone with him. Surely there must have been; people don’t act this way solo. Do they? Post incident, I had a vision of two dudes emerging from that truck with at least one gun. Putting a gun in the hand of someone like this; well I guess it’s likely that the consequence for me would have been the same as if he had hit me with his truck.

As he drove away, the red mist field of vision faded, and I at least had the presence of mind to point at his license plate, hoping he was smart enough to "get it" as he looked in his mirror. I got my phone out and left a voice memo with the number. Of course I had no idea as to what kind of truck it was. I had been pretty single-minded the whole time all of this was going down.

At this point, a big GMC pickup pulled off the road just ahead of me. A driver named Herb had stopped to make sure I was all right. Herb had seen the whole incident, and told me that from behind it appeared that the driver was aiming for me. I asked Herb if he noticed what kind of pickup truck it was, and he told me it had been a beat-up gold Chevy Luv. Herb and I talked for a few minutes, and he didn’t hesitate to leave his phone number and offer to be a witness if I could get anything done about what had happened.

I ride my bike about 10,000 miles a year and I ride all over. Of the bazillions of cars that have passed me, 99.9999% of the drivers have been courteous. When I talk to other cyclist’s, I get the impression the close pass scare occurs a lot more for them than it does for me, despite the miles I rack up. As a matter of fact, since I have been using a Dinotte 400r unbelievably bright rear light, most of the cars give me a very comfortable berth. The light does something; drivers seem to be subconsciously or consciously giving more room than normal.

I like to think that I am an extremely cautious rider, as well as being a pretty experienced rider. There isn’t a whole lot that I have not dealt with on the bike when it comes to traffic.

By no means am I saying I am a perfect angel on the bike 100% of the time. But I wasn’t doing anything wrong on Friday when I nearly got run over. I had been riding in the shoulder and not impeding traffic in any way. I was dressed in bright yellow and using front and rear super bright lights. I was being courteous and respectful of the car drivers. As usual, I was doing everything in my power to not get hit.

The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is always the most nerve wracking time of the year for me while riding:

Since the economy nosedived there is a lot less traffic, but the drivers seem to be angry and in even more of a hurry. The Holidays do that to you, I guess. Perhaps many of these people are worried about losing their job and they are in a rush to get to the store and buy presents before they do get the sack.

Now I am really bummed. I just went back through my phone voice memos, and apparently I forgot to save the audio messages I left with the license plate and Herb’s phone number. Damn technology! My last phone auto-saved memos and I guess I just forgot to do it because I was so disturbed.

I had intended to contact the State Patrol as well as the Issaquah Police. I don’t know if the police are empowered to act on something like what happened to me. If would have been great if an officer of the law could knock on this asshole’s door and explain the consequences that would have resulted had he run me over in broad daylight. There were witnesses and I believe their testimony would be unanimous that this driver intended to hit me. The driver sure couldn’t have used a defense common when motorists kill cyclists after striking them from behind. With me wearing super bright yellow, and using the brightest tail light in the business; I don’t think a jury would buy that the driver “never saw him.” My rear light is brighter than a normal auto tail light, and is easily visible from 1.5 miles back in summer daylight.

I don’t know what lesson there is for me to learn from this episode. You can be doing everything right, or as right as you can be while sharing the road with car traffic, and still get killed riding your bicycle. Issaquah Hobart is not a road I go out of my way to ride, but I have ridden it many times with no problem. And make no mistake, I will ride it again.

Seattle is about as good as it gets when it comes to cycling. I shudder to think as to what it’s like to ride in, say, Wichita Falls, Texas.

I know the type of scare I experienced yesterday can occur any day of the year when I get out on my bike. But for me, things are the tensest at this time of the year. Tis’ the joyous season. Be careful out there. I know I will be.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Part III: The High Sierras...The Hardest Climbs in the World?

On February 8th at 7pm, David Longdon and I will be doing a multimedia presentation titled "Cycling the Monster Climbs in the Owens Valley, CA" at the Downtown Seattle REI as part of the Cascade Presentation Series. We’ll be discussing the hardest paved cycling climbs in the world, and the Sierra climbs compare favorably. David and I spent a week riding in California during a glorious heat wave in late September:

With the Seattle area seemingly entering a new Ice Age, it feels appropriate to publish the final installment of my Sierra Trip report.

David took some great pictures:

The day by day (minute by minute?) account of the actual cycling can be found here:

Kilometer by kilometer statistics from all of the big European climbs can be found here:

The published Euro climb numbers fall in line with my actual on the bike numbers. I started this blog after returning from Europe in the summer of 2008. Many of the big European climbs are detailed in my day by day account, commencing with the Italian Dolomites (where the picture at the top of this blog was taken) and Alps. The first trip post is towards the bottom of the page, and subsequent posts are on later dated blogs:

Two of the Sierra Climbs make for pretty good comparison with the famous European climbs. White Mountain and Horseshoe Meadows are a whole different animal and I will get to them later.

Name of Climb


Elevation Gain

Ending Elevation

Average Grade

Name of Climb


Elevation Gain

Ending Elevation

Average Grade

Whitney Portal





Gavia (Italy)





Tourmalet (France)





Madeleine (France)





Onion Valley





Alp d’Huez (France)





Galibier (France)















Mt. Ventoux (France)





On paper, Onion Valley is harder than any climb in Europe, with the possible exception of the Stelvio (see below). The last ten miles of Onion Valley average 8.3%, beginning at around 5000’ altitude and finishing at over 9000’. Those are bruising statistics by any measure. Overall, the European climbs listed above stack up pretty well with Whitney Portal. But only the Galibier and the Gavia finish up at anywhere near as high of an elevation as Whitney Portal and Onion Valley, and other climbs in the Sierras finish up considerably higher. The effect of cycling at higher altitudes has to be experienced to be fully understood. I have not compared these Euro classics to what David Longdon and I both felt were the two hardest climbs we did in the Sierras. Here is how those climbs stack up with two more very hard European climbs:

Name of Climb


Elevation Gain

Ending Elevation

Average Grade

Name of Climb


Elevation Gain

Ending Elevation

Average Grade

Horseshoe Meadows





Stelvio (Italy)





White Mountain





Bonnette (France)





Paper doesn’t always translate to the pedals sometimes. Here, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Well, maybe one number does: ending elevation. At first glance, it’s easy to say that while Horseshoe Meadows and White Mountain may be higher, they are not as steep as the Stelvio and Bonnette. The Stelvio and Bonnette do have the highest ending elevation of all of the climbs in Europe, but the Sierra climbs top out over 1000’ higher.

The X Factor that doesn’t show up in the table is the fact that both Horseshoe Meadows and White Mountain Road have long stretches of very steep road near the end of the climb. On White Mountain for example, the last three miles average nearly 9% with sections up to 17%. These last three miles start at around 8700’, or almost as high as the Stelvio and Bonnette finish. Also, the grade is much more consistent on the Stelvio and Bonnette. Horseshoe and White Mountain throw wildly varying grades at you, and I think that makes these climbs all the more difficult.

The Stelvio does have a short (well, in theory anyway) section of 10% right at the top. The final half mile of the Bonnette goes at an average of almost 11%. I must have been delusional while riding at that point, because I have a stronger memory of watching the guy in the 2008 Tour de France fly off the road while riding the Bonnette in the opposite direction. Yeah, I mean the dude who went over the edge and down about 50’, with his bicycle plummeting down the rocky slope another 100’ or so. Guess I remember that scene so vividly because Versus showed it 100 times, and I only road the climb once!

Make no mistake about it; the Stelvio and Bonnette are seriously hard climbs, and seriously great and scenic climbs. I guess for the relative difficulty ranking really to be conclusive for me, I’d have to do the Stelvio, Bonnette, Horseshoe Meadows and White Mountain on four consecutive days, and I’d have to be 100% rested each day. Impossible other than in a daydream fantasy!

All of the Sierra climbs are hard, and all of them are long. It’s interesting that both David and I felt that Whitney Portal and Onion Valley (the climbs with the steepest average grade) were not the toughest ascents we did during the week. Both of us felt that White Mountain and Horseshoe Meadows were harder. I believe that the combination of higher finishing altitude and the overall length of White Mountain and Horseshoe Meadows made them “feel” harder.

We did other great climbs that were very difficult:

Name of Climb


Elevation Gain

Ending Elevation

Average Grade

Rock Creek/Mosquito Flat





South Lake





Lake Sabrina





Once again, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. These were super hard climbs, but perhaps not as directly comparable to the Europe climbs—you had to be there to know why.

Of course, statistics never tell the whole story, and below I’ll try to elaborate.

Stelvio (Italian Alps-the climb ranked #1 favorite by European cyclists, and the hardest climb I have done in Europe): Length: 15.1m Elevation Gain: 5932’ Ending elevation: 9048’ Average Grade: 7.4% (photo)

The Stelvio is a masterpiece sketched on pavement. This is my favorite climb in the world, and until I went to the Sierras, the hardest climb I had ever done. I would now rank the Stelvio third, behind both White Mountain and Horseshoe Meadows. The Stelvio is either the highest or second highest paved road in Europe, depending on whether you are talking to an Italian or Frenchman.

Alp d’Huez is renowned for its famous numbered hairpin turns, but the final number is a lot higher on the Stelvio…48 numbered switchbacks to be precise.

Check out this crazy video of a nut that did the Stelvio on a fixed gear bike (staged or genuine?) for some incredible action and scenery:

Tim W. and I had planned climbing the Gavia from the north after the Stelvio. It rained the entire way up the Stelvio and it was snowing on the top, so we prudently abandoned the idea of descending the south side of the Stelvio to get to the Gavia. Despite the tough weather, the Stelvio remains the single greatest climb I have ever done. When I go back to do the Gavia, for sure I’ll be riding the Stelvio again.

Madeleine (French Alps): Length: 12.3m Elevation Gain: 4987’ Ending elevation: 6539’ Average Grade: 7.7%

The Madeleine is a beautiful monster of a climb commonly used in the TDF. Madeleine was tough! A village dog trotted alongside me for a bit during the middle of the climb. As Tim and I were basking in our success at a café on top, the same dog popped up over the last little rise! He must be the Lance Armstrong of dogs if he does that every day. It hurt, but I loved this climb.

Alp d’Huez (French Alps): Length: 8.2m Elevation Gain: 3514’ Ending elevation: 5955’ Average Grade: 8.1%

The Alp is a classic that has been used many times in the TDF. The steepest part comes where you want it to—at the start. The initial 1.5m at over 10% would be a rude wake-up call if you started your day at the foot of the climb. For some reason, this climb didn’t light my fire as much as many of the other great climbs in France. For sure I would do it again, but I wouldn’t go out of my way.

Mount Ventoux (Provence): Length: 14.1m Elevation Gain: 5321’ Ending elevation: 6573’ Average Grade: 7.1%

The Ventoux is really the only major big time Tour De France climb that I have not done, thereby insuring at least one trip to Provence for Tracy.

Galibier (French Alps): Length: Elevation Gain: 4085’ Ending elevation: 8681’ Average Grade: 6.9%

The spectacle of the Galibier is fantastic, and this is one of the most scenic climbs I have ever done. I bet the Stelvio would have been even prettier if I could have seen more than blurry glimpses through the fog of rain.

Tourmalet (French Pyrenees): Length: 11.8m Elevation Gain: 4606’ Ending elevation: 6939’ Average Grade: 7.4%

The first big climb used in the Tour, this one supposedly had the riders accusing the organizers of trying to kill them. In modern times with modern gearing the Tourmalet is not a killer, but it is very, very hard, especially at the top when you ride through the ski town of La Mongie.

Bonnette (French Maritime Alps): Length: 14.9m Elevation Gain: 5213’ Ending elevation: 9193’ Average Grade: 6.6%

This is an outstanding climb, and perhaps my second favorite climb in Europe. Up high, the terrain (and view) is very similar to Trail Ridge Road in Colorado. The Bonnette is the highest paved road in Europe—well, maybe. Italians tout the Stelvio, and other French declare the Iseran to be higher because it is a true col. The locals actually built a little summit extension loop onto the Bonnette to have a tiny section of pavement higher than the Iseran.

Gavia (Italian Alps—I haven’t done this one, but most sources site the Stelvio as being harder): Length: 10.7m Elevation Gain: 4472’ Ending elevation: 8600’ Average Grade: 7.9%

Located near the Stelvio, this one seems to make it into more Giro de Italias these days. The Gavia is famous for being the climb where American Andy Hamsted took the lead for good in the 1988 Giro. A driving snowstorm caused many riders to drop out. Not Andy.

Mortirolo (Italian Alps—I have not done this one either, but it has a very butch reputation): Length: 7.7m Elevation Gain: 4265’ Ending elevation: 6072’ Average Grade 10.2%

Short in length but wickedly steep, this one is probably like doing the Butte (“Brute”) near Chelan, but five times in a row non-stop. Bring your low gears like the pros do (many use 34/29 or 27).

Mount Zoncolan (Italy-Carnic Alps): Length: 8.4m Elevation Gain: 3947’ Ending elevation: 5692’ Average Grade: 8.9%

This lesser known Italian climb will be used in the 2011 Giro. The Italians don’t appear to worry about building roads with “moderate” grades like the French do.

Haleakala (Maui): Length: 36.5m Elevation Gain: 10000’ Ending elevation: 10023’ Average Grade: 5.2%

Some sources list this one as the hardest climb in the US, with Onion Valley in 2nd place. Due to the lower average and more consistent grade, I didn’t find this one as difficult as White Mountain, Horseshoe Meadows, or Onion Valley (in some ways). With consistent grades on Haleakala, the high altitude is not nearly the factor that it is in the Sierras. Nevertheless, that .2m, 15-20%+ section at 10000’ into a 50mph wind is probably the hardest little piece of road that I have ever ridden. I rode up Haleakala on Wednesday, July 21st in calm weather, and then again on Saturday in incredibly brutal wind. While I didn’t think it was the hardest climb I had ever done, I did think it was one of the greatest:

I believe some riders might rank Haleakala as their personal hardest, simply because of the length and high altitude. I just can’t do that, and it’s hard for me to say that Haleakala is the 4th hardest climb that I have ever done (behind White Mountain, Horseshoe Meadows, and the Stelvio). The big Hawaiian monster just seemed a lot more enjoyable than difficult to me. Maybe it was because of what I witnessed on my second time up:

And just for good measure:

Hurricane Ridge in the Olympics (this climb is essentially a ½ Haleakala): Length: 18.1m Elevation Gain: 5000’ Ending elevation: 5200’ Average Grade 5.2%

This is the classic “alpine” climb in Washington, and the biggest climb in the state. It’s kind of hard to get to, and I have only ridden this one twice. I’ll be back.

Mt. Evans and other high altitude Colorado climbs: I lived in Denver for 13 years, and during that time I rode up some of the harder climbs. It’s been 20 years since I have done Mt. Evans, so I am going to have to take a trip to Colorado to repeat it. My gut tells me that the Sierra climbs will feel harder, because the steeper grades will more than make up for the over 14000’ finish of Evans. Of course I’ll be twenty years older…

Mt. Lemmon (near Tucson, AZ): this is a simply amazing climb that rises up from the desert through five climactic zones to the alpine, topping out at just under 9000’. The nearly 6000’ of climbing was not nearly as challenging as controlling my bicycle during the long descent in 40+mph cross-winds. I love this climb, but in terms of difficulty, the Sierra climbs are in a whole different league.

For an incredibly detailed account of each Sierra climb, as well as another take on how the Owens Valley climbs stack up, take a look at this blog:

One can debate which climbs are the hardest in the world subjectively, or attempt to analyze the numbers objectively. What adjustment factor does one use to compare different climbs that finish at much different elevations? On Haleakala, I rode a rental bike that was at least 5# heavier than my bike. For gosh sakes, it even had Shimano stuff:)

There are a lot of other variables involved with my comparison. How rested or fatigued was I when I did the climb, how fit was I, what were the weather conditions? Because of the weather difference, Haleakala felt much, much harder the second time I did it. Whether subjective or objective viewpoints are applied, the Sierra climbs really measure up. For me, the combination of length and elevation gain combined with the steep grades at high altitude make the Sierra climbs extremely difficult. The sheer size of the Sierra climbs is impressive. Here is a summary of the Top 5 most difficult paved climbs in the world (that I know exist), in my opinion:





White Mountain Road


White Mountains, CA

Length, altitude, very steep finishing section, inconsistent grade

Horseshoe Meadows


Eastern Sierras, CA

Length, altitude, long steep sections high up, intimidating visual impact!

Passo Stelvio


Italian Alps

Length, altitude, high average grade, overwhelming visual impact!



Maui, HI

Length, altitude, 36.5m long with 10000 of gain!

Onion Valley


Eastern Sierras, CA

8% average grade, altitude, visual impact, reputation!

White Mountain Road and Horseshoe Meadows sit atop my all time ass-kicker list.

As far as the greatest climbs in the world, I can tell you that the Sierra climbs make my list too. Cycling in the mountains of Europe is an incredible experience for so many reasons, but at least the difficulty can be easily replicated in California. The Sierra scenery is pretty stunning as well, albeit in a totally different way from most alpine climbs.

Would I go back? Of course I would. In fact, I am considering making the Sierras an annual pilgrimage. I’m already thinking about next year’s trip. What will I do differently? Well, I am going to more diligently prepare for the trip, at least as best I can while living at sea level. The area is so hard to get to that I might make it a longer trip, doing an easy hike on a rest day off of the bike. Perhaps I will throw in a few of the easier (but still very hard) Death Valley climbs.

As far as my riding goals for the trip, at least I can still say that I have never had to do the “The Weave.”

Monday, November 1, 2010

Part II The High Sierras...Hardest Climbs in the World?

Below is a (long and detailed!) blow by blow account of the September cycling trip David Longdon and I took to the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. In Part III, I’ll be comparing the Sierra climbs to some of the monster climbs in Europe. For the trip overview, see Part I:

Day One September 22nd: Length: 49m (round trip) Elevation Gain: 6407’ Max altitude: 10,250’ Average Grade: 5.3% Route: Round Valley—Sherwin Grade—Tom’s Place—Rock Creek Lake—Mosquito Flats Difficulty: 9 Overall Ride Quality: 8 Scenery: 9

Today’s ride stood out from the other rides of the week in that it was kind of segmented. We started off with a great 5 mile climb of what is known as the Sherwin Grade, which I actually thought was the best climb (and descent) of the day. We then dropped sharply into a little canyon carved by a creek. After another 3-4 miles of climbing, we intersected Rt. 395, which we took north for an uphill mile to Tom’s Place (I’m not making that up). From Tom’s Place, the “real” climb began, the first 9 miles up Rock Creek to reach Rock Lake, and then another two miles to reach Mosquito Flat (no bugs in sight at 10,250’-the highest paved road in CA). The alpine views up at Mosquito Flat were nice, but not overly dramatic.

Upon returning to Sherwin Grade, we had no traffic and pool table smooth tarmac that allowed us to link up turn after turn as if we were going down a Giant Slalom course on skis. Another payoff was the stunning views of the higher Sierras to the south, as well as back down into the deep and wide Owens Valley and across to 14,400’ White Mountain.

As would hold true for the rest of the week, the roads were almost devoid of cars, and as with some of the other climbs, the road narrowed down to one lane at the top. Like many classic climbs around the world, the slope steepens as you go higher on most of the Sierra climbs, but Rock Creek wasn’t too bad.

Having driven for 16 hours non-stop from Seattle the previous day with David, I wasn’t expecting my legs to feel “fresh”, and to further complicate things, we got off to a little bit of a late start. We were groggy from the drive! Late in the ride, the legs felt a little better, but I was tired. We had planned on adding the “short” 3500’ vertical climb up Pine Creek after Rock Creek. Starting late, we had elected to drive about eight miles to the beginning of today’s first climb, and we parked where the start of both climbs intersected. Pine Creek was not on our “critical” list; we looked at the time, and then at each other, got into the car and drove back to Bishop. So much for the “add bonus climbs” part of my standard plan.

Rock Creek was probably my least favorite climb of the week, but it was still spectacular. The next time I am in the area I may skip it, or only do the first part up the Sherwin Grade just to pick up the fabulous descent on the return trip.

Rock Creek was a hard climb. Not as hard as some of the ball breaking climbs that followed, but it was hard…

Day Two: Length: 54m (round trip) Elevation Gain: 7068’ Max Altitude: 9835’ Average Grade: 5.85% (South Lake) 6.0% Lake Sabrina Route: Bishop—South Lake—Lake Sabrina, both via Rt. 168 West Difficulty: 10 Quality: 10 Scenery: 10

We did the tough climb up to South Lake first, which took us up to the 9835’ high point of the day after 5450’ of climbing. The climb was long and never easy, with the end being particularly difficult. We knew it was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier. The average 10+% grade of the final mile was killer, especially with a 15% ramp coming right at the end for a finish at nearly 10,000’.

At 10,000’, 6% feels like 9%, 9% feels like 12%, and 15% feels like crap!

After a ripping descent down to the junction with the Lake Sabrina Rd, we found ourselves grinding up a sustained 9% grade towards Lake Sabrina. Sabrina was only 1400’ of gain over four miles, but as with South Lake; it was steep at the end. This time it was almost a mile at 9% with a 16% kicker at just over 9000’ elevation.

If the initial long and straight slog up through the high desert and subalpine was a bit tedious (as well as steep and pretty hard), all was forgotten on the screaming descent. According to Bicycling Magazine, Lake Sabrina is one of the top five descents in the US:

I held a pretty steady 48mph for a long time, and I would touch 50mph later in the week. I could have done so here without the warm up sloping winds in my face. With a straight as an arrow 4 miles or so at 8% and no cars, there was plenty of time to enjoy the views across the valley.

Lake Sabrina and South Lake were both set in a pretty high alpine cirque, the roads were smooth, and hard as it was, today’s ride was fantastic.

Crazy White Mountain/Horseshoe Meadow descents from the bike cam

Owens Valley Cycling: White Mtn & Horsehoe Meadows from David Longdon on Vimeo.

Day Three: Length: 47m (round trip) Elevation Gain: 6573’ Max Altitude: 10,150’ Average Grade: 6.0% (with many very steep sections up high; for ex, the last 6.5 miles at 7% with sections up to 17%, and the last three miles at nearly 9%) Route: Big Pine (15m south of Bishop)—Rt. 168 East—White Mountain Rd—Bristlecone Pine Forest Difficulty: 10++ Quality: 10 Scenery: 8

The Big Daddy of the week was Bristlecone Forest-White Mountain Road—the hardest paved climb in the world IMHO. I cannot overstate just how difficult this climb is. It’s long, it’s high, and it’s steep…up high. White Mountain Rd. is wickedly hard.

Today was supposed to be the “crux” day of the trip. We intended to follow up White Mountain with the 10 mile climb up to Glacier Lodge. With 3747’ of climbing at 7.2% average grade, Glacier Lodge compares well with the Tourmalet in the French Pyrenees, except it finishes almost 1000’ higher than the Tourmalet. And we were thinking of Glacier Lodge as an “easy” climb! It’s only statistically easy because every other climb we did during the week was harder.

As it turned out, we didn’t do Glacier Lodge, and we didn’t need to for this day to be our “crux.” White Mountain itself was all that was required. One reason it’s so hard to do two of these climbs in a day is that you descend for so long after doing a 20+ mile climb. If we had to get to a motel up at Glacier Lodge, I am sure we would have done the climb. But knowing how hard the following days were going to be, David and I couldn’t come up with a reason. We were cooked, and there was no flipping way that we were going up another super hard climb if it was optional! Ride by the car and head up another climb in the heat? So much for the “ride every foot of every planned climb” part of the goals for the trip.

Today’s route was the only one that headed east, and the only one that didn’t start climbing immediately. There are a few miles of flat road and gentle climbing before you have to wake up to handle 4 miles at 7%. In fact, one of the reasons why this climb is a beast is that the grade is not consistent. When the grade eased for a bit, as opposed to thinking, “Ah, time to kick back for a moment,” it was more like, “Yikes, for every easy foot, that means that it will have to be really steep to make up for it.”

To quote David, “This ride was also mentally intimidating. During the final 10 miles I craned my neck upwards to make out the road ahead and kept thinking ‘it can't possibly go up there--it's too steep!’ only to find myself pedaling up that very improbable stretch of road 10 minutes later. Phew!”

Today was the only time of the week that we saw more than a few cars; they were all “friendlies.” The hardest two-day USAC race/ride in the US is called the Everest Challenge, and it was to start in Bishop the following day. Finish this one, and I bet the Death Ride would seem like a cruise on a bike path. The first day alone of the Everest Challenge is harder than the Death Ride, and then there is another 13,000’ of climbing the following day:

White Mountain Rd. would be the last climb on the second day, and people were driving up to check it out. I’m sure some of these people regretted getting an early look. At one point about 2/3 of the way up, a passenger rolled down the window to ask if I was getting some warm up in! He didn’t seem to be joking (as he should have been) when he encouraged me with a, “Looking good!”

There isn’t a big alpine payoff at the top of this one. White Mountain Rd. turns to dirt at the point where the road levels off at a nondescript spot. The views 6000’ back down into the Owens Valley are dramatic, and across the broad valley lurk the high Sierras. We could see the Rock Creek, Lake Sabrina, and South Lake areas.

As brutal as the climb was, the descent was inversely tremendous fun (see David’s video above). With a mostly downhill run of over 20 miles on great pavement, we ranked the 9-mile lower section on Rt. 168 as the single best descent of the week. Bicycling Magazine may rank Onion Valley as the #1 descent in the country, but for us it was only number two. Maybe the magazine deducted points for the crazy steep tight hairpins on those last miles at the end of the White Mountain climb. I didn’t give any thought to how the downhill might be while grinding my way up, so the fabulous descent was a pleasant surprise. Near the bottom there was even a long straightaway where I just tucked and bombed it.

All week we had pretty calm winds, and it got hotter every day. It was real hot by late morning today.

Day Four: Length: 46m (round trip) Elevation Gain: 6702’ Max Altitude: 10,034’ Average Grade: 6.2% Route: Lone Pine—Alabama Hills—Horseshoe Meadows trailhead Difficulty: 10++ Quality: 10 Scenery: 10

Horseshoe Meadows—the second hardest climb in the world, IMHO. This big boy gives you about 5500’ of climbing and then it throws a descent at you before you complete the climb to Horseshoe Meadows. Thankfully, the end of this climb doesn’t have the brutally steep sections at the top like White Mountain. But then White Mountain doesn’t require you to do a 7.5% ascent at 9600’ on the way back down after your legs have solidified. Each one of the Sierra climbs seems to have its own special niche when it comes to punishing the rider.

We started off from Lone Pine on Tuttle Rd, which took us up through the Alabama Hills. These are the unique rock formations that with the Sierras as a backdrop, and make a great set for good movie making (see Part I). The whole time we were in Lone Pine, we could look to the southwest and see five huge switchbacks slashed across the steep face of the Sierras. When you are approaching this spectacle, the size and scope are pretty damn impressive. As we worked our way up the long straight climb just to get to the switchbacks, I realized that there wouldn’t be much point to counting them. The length and steepness of each switchback makes you forget that you are even on a switchback when you are riding, but I did count them anyway.

Despite yesterday’s abandonment of the second “easier” climb, I still wanted to give a Horseshoe Meadows/Whitney Portal double a shot. Just as with yesterday, I rationalized that Whitney was a lot easier than Horseshoe, so how bad can it be? We got off to an early start, and both David and I went as easy as we possibly could up through the Alabama Hills and onto the lower slopes of Horseshoe Meadows. Gotta save that energy for the double! You know you are in trouble when “as easy as you can go” is pretty much the same thing as “as hard as you can go.”

Going easy up steep grades is not easy, and maybe hurts more than going harder. I spent a lot of time at low cadences, and that takes a toll. I would have done better with a lower gear than what I have used successfully all over Europe. Unless you happen to be a member of the European Pro Tour Peloton and possess a threshold wattage of 400+, you are going to want lower gears for these climbs than you have ever needed before. Trust me on this; even those guys would be going low on these climbs.

With the length and steepness of the climbs, my lower back was starting to object to the miles of low cadence pedaling. I was forced to make four stops on Horseshoe Meadows to rest my aching back, something I have never had to do before, not even on the 36.5 mile Haleakala climb. So much for riding every climb bottom to top without stopping like I have done in Europe and everywhere else. At about the fourth switchback my energy level seemed to plummet. The hard climbs and daily trips up to 10,000’ were taking a toll. Following Horseshoe with Whitney? No way, no how.

After the switchbacks, the descent drops you off on the other side of a massive ridge. The views are much better on the front side, and Horseshoe Meadows itself is nothing special. The road surface was pretty rough, and the long descent to Lone Pine was tiring. If White Mountain was the best and most amazing descent, returning from Horseshoe Meadows was the most awe inspiring. We had yet to see a guardrail on any ride, and today featured some stunning and precipitous drops.

Wild video of the Whitney Portal and Onion Valley descents

Owens Valley Cycling: Whitney Portal & Onion Valley Rd from David Longdon on Vimeo.

Day Five: Length: 25m (round trip) Elevation Gain: 4580’ Max altitude: 8371’ Average Grade 7.7% Route: Lone Pine—Whitney Portal (Mt. Whitney trailhead) Difficulty: 10+ Quality: 10 Scenery: 10

The classic Whitney Portal climb—a brief reprieve, but still pretty damn intense. Only 25 miles round trip, but not exactly a recovery day. It was beautiful early in the morning when we started. With a full moon hovering above Mt. Whitney, and the glow from the slowly rising sun behind us, the changing morning light on the mountains was striking. To the left was the big “Z” of the lower Horseshoe Meadows switchbacks as Lone Pine was receding behind and below us. The first three or four miles of straightaway were a nice warm up at 4-6%, and not boring at all because of the panoramic views. Next up were two miles or so at 6-8%, before the real party started with four miles at mostly 9-11%. By that time we were at almost 8000’, and the remainder of the climb was mostly 7-9%. This was our first day that we didn’t see 10,000’ or very close to it, and the difference was tangible. With Whitney Portal topping out around 8400’, we stayed below the altitude “threshold” that seems to hit at around 8500’ or so. Above that level, things get noticeably harder.

Today’s big payoff was the famous pancake (yes, pancake, not pancakes) sold at the Whitney Portal Store. This pancake is one of the largest in the world, and definitely the tastiest I have ever had. It’s the size of a hubcap. David and I were going to split one, but they brought us a second one by mistake. We each stuffed half of the bonus pancake into our jersey pocket for the next morning’s breakfast!

Yeah, we liked the pancake, but the best views of the week were also to be had at the top and we lingered, taking it all in. From the trailhead, you can no longer see Mt. Whitney, but there were granite spires and big walls all around us. We were surrounded by the first really big trees we had seen the whole trip.

Normally I enjoy going uphill more than downhill, but this trip might have been the exception. Every climb was so damn hard, and then the long descent just flowed and you never wanted it to end. Today I touched 50mph, and then did a slalom weave across the whole width of the empty road. Without the thermal updraft, as well as a vest and stuffed pockets to create drag, who knows how fast I could have gone?

Today’s climb was not as hard as the previous two days. I only made one stop for the sore back, and I had better energy. Even with the extended pancake stop we were back in Lone Pine before 10 AM. But during each day’s ride, the thought of the next day’s ride was always in the back of my mind. Tomorrow’s climb was supposed to be a doozy.

Day Six: Length: 25m (round trip) Elevation Gain: 5275’Max Altitude: 9200’ Average Grade: 8% Route: Independence (eight miles north of Lone Pine)—Onion Valley trailhead Difficulty: 10+ Quality: 10 Scenery: 10

The (in) famous Onion Valley climb is considered by some to be the hardest paved climb in the world—I disagree. Don’t get me wrong; with the last 10 miles averaging 8.3% grade (the steepest 10 mile section of road in the US) and a finish over 9000’, this is one tough ascent. Since we didn’t complete the Horseshoe Meadows/Whitney Portal one day double, we had to add a day to our itinerary to polish off this badass climb, and it was worth it. We would have left with a hollow feeling in our gut had we not stuck around for another day. Had we split the scene, I think we might have left with a sense of defeat brought on by the immensity of these climbs.

Bicycling Magazine lists Onion Valley as the #1 best descent in the US, and I also disagree with that. I would reorder their list and rank it third, behind Haleakala and White Mountain Rd. The Onion Valley road surface is very smooth and there are a lot of technical curves. Other than a close encounter with a deer while travelling about 35mph (see David’s video), the last descent of the week was marvelous.

Onion Valley is kind of like the Stelvio in the Italian Alps without (big) trees, summit snow, and surrounding ice covered peaks. We rode for an hour and a half without one car passing us in either direction. Now that is what I call desolate, and I can assure you that the Stelvio is not so deserted!

Onion Valley is significantly longer than and almost as steep as Alp d’Huez (8.0% versus 8.1% average grade), steeper and longer than the Tourmalet and the Galibier, and longer and steeper than the Madeleine. These climbs are considered some of the very most difficult in the Tour de France, and Onion Valley is higher and harder than all of them. For us, it was just the third hardest climb of the week. Maybe we were just getting used to this stuff?

I took two Advil before we started to stave off the lower back aches. It mostly worked, and I only had to stop once. On the way up, we also stopped about 20 minutes to talk to Robert from New York City. Other than quite a few townies in Bishop and Lone Pine, and a few Everest Challenge volunteers checking out part of White Mountain Rd, Robert was the only cyclist we had seen all week. It was tough to recharge and grind out the last few miles after that stop. Robert had been dreaming of a Sierras trip for three years, ever since he got a hold of the book "The Complete Climbing Guide (By Bike)" by John Somerson. This book lists Onion Valley as having the “Toughest 10 Miles” in the US:

“The last 10 miles of this 12.5-mile ascent are the steepest stretch of that length in the country--and also higher than 5,000 feet, a combination that unquestionably makes it the most difficult. The first 2.5 miles are a great warm-up. Like most Eastern Sierra climbs, the road sneakily gets steeper as you ascend, then the switchbacks begin and you're in no-man's land: too far up to see the start, too far down to see the finish. After you clear the Sierra foothills, the twisting road eases its slope then kicks into an alpine climb along a narrow road between soaring rock walls, with the massive Owens Valley visible behind you. You hear but cannot see a rushing creek. Close to the top, an elegant S-curve funnels you into an alpine bowl, and then the climb ends soon after. Longer than Alpe d'Huez and steeper than the Galibier and Tourmalet, the last 10 miles of Onion Valley are legendary.”

At “only” 12.5 miles with just under 5300’ of climbing, Onion Valley was one of the shorter climbs of the week. Like I have said, it was hard, but not the hardest in our opinion. Perhaps it felt less difficult because even with the final 10 miles at 8.3% average grade, there were no long sections over 11%. For us, Onion Valley was not a mega monster like White Mountain or Horseshoe Meadows.

For another take on most of these climbs, see Bill Oetinger’s great blog titled “Inyo Face”:

Why are the Sierra climbs so hard? The altitude is a serious issue. According to a commonly used formula, a fit person on average will have 79.3% of their normal aerobic power available at 10,000’. For example, if a cyclist has a threshold power of 300 watts at sea level, only 238 of those watts will be “available” at 10,000’. In practical terms, the lower power is why a gradient that is normally no problem at sea level with a specific gear can become a big problem at higher altitudes. Your power declines, as does your cadence, and then your morale:)

The best thing about cycling in the Eastern Sierras is also the worst thing: the incredible remoteness. The Owens Valley is not an easy place to get to from anywhere. The upside is that these roads were the most desolate and devoid of cars that I have ever ridden anywhere. OK, for some perspective on the “remoteness,” consider that the Sierras offer an opportunity to do mega-sized climbs without having to fly to Europe. Don’t get me wrong; for me riding the big climbs in Europe is the absolute pinnacle of what I enjoy doing on a bike. And no, the Sierra scenery is not comparable to the high alpine vistas of the Alps. The Sierras feature a different, but really no less spectacular setting.

Of the goals that I started the week with, I fully accomplished only one of them. I have still never had to do the weave to get up a climb. Actually, I have done the weave, but on my singlespeed around Seattle! Everyone responds differently to altitude, but David and I agree that for us the turning point seemed to be around 8,000-8,500’. Below this level, we could sense a power loss, but above this level it seemed to increase dramatically. It is interesting that there are very few climbs in Europe that top out over 8500’. There is no question that several climbs we did in the Sierras rank as the hardest climbs I have ever done, but would they rank amongst the greatest climbs?

Stay tuned for Part III.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Part I The High Sierras...Hardest Climbs in the World?

Considered as a group, I believe that the climbs found on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California are the hardest paved climbs in the world. In my opinion, White Mountain Rd. and Horseshoe Meadows are the two most difficult climbs in the world…period. A third climb I would place in my top five hardest.

From now on, any time I am involved in a debate about the toughest climbs on Earth, I will lead with the Sierra climbs. If I am limited to comparing the Sierras with other hard climbs I have done, I’ll have to limit it to almost all of the major climbs in the Italian Alps or Dolomites, the French Alps or Maritime Alps, or the Pyrenees. Throw Haleakala on Maui into the mix, which I rode up twice in July.

I’m going to try and be objective with my comparisons, but obviously, opinion will factor heavily. I recognize that other cyclists have different criteria as for what makes a climb hard for them. In Part III of this report, I will attempt to quantify my opinions. I’ll list the hard numbers, and you can be the judge.


If you look at a map, you will find that the High Sierra Mountains run north to south, unbroken by a road for 180 miles. At the north end, Tioga Pass leading into Yosemite is your last chance for an east-west crossing. Travelling south on 395, you won’t get another opportunity to head west until Rt. 178 at Ridgecrest, which will take you to Bakersfield. Much of this country lies within protected National Parks, but this terrain protects itself; it simply is too rugged to build a road through it.

Of course, there isn’t a need for more roads; Rt. 395 is the only north-south road through the Owens Valley, the center of which is about 260 miles from both Las Vegas and Reno. This climbing Mecca is truly located in the middle of nowhere, and to me a road trip made the most sense.

No through roads means all of the climbs are out and back, and all but one head west into the Sierras. Only Bristlecone Forest-White Mountain Rd. heads east into, you guessed it, the White Mountains, capped off by 14,246’ White Mountain. Several climbs start from Bishop and Lone Pine, and others start from Independence and Big Pine.

Steep and rugged mountains make for steep and rugged roads. While not offering the purest “lines” in terms of loop trips, or the convenience of spending the whole week riding from one base, the Owens Valley climbs are memorable for so many reasons.

David Longdon and I spent six riding days in the Eastern Sierras. David’s impressions, Garmin maps of the rides, and links to some cool on the bike videos can be found here:

For David’s collection of great photographs:

My first impression of the Eastern Sierra area was that it was a lot like the Colorado Rockies, except a lot harder in terms of riding your bike. There were the same type of big sky open vistas, the Aspen were turning a golden color; but the Sierras are just so BIG, and a lot steeper.

On a typical mountain pass climb in Colorado, you start at 8000’, and then ride up 4-6% grades to 11,000’ or so. In the Eastern Sierra, you start at 4000’ in the Owens Valley, do 6000’+ of climbing on much steeper grades, and finish at over 10,000’. You often can see all the way down to the valley from the top of the climb, and the mountains still tower above you at 13,000 or 14,000’, a full 10,000’ above the valley. The vertical relief is simply amazing and makes for some incredible views.

I’ve never been a fan of desert riding, but riding in the Eastern Sierras is sensational. Bishop, our base for the first three nights, lies in the high desert of the Owens Valley, but there are real trees and a lot of green; always a plus. Climbing out of the valley, you move through the sub-alpine and finish in pure alpine terrain. This is just a very unique area.

We spent the week riding during a record heat wave in California, with temperatures hitting 113 in Downtown Los Angeles on our last day. Despite the fact that we were climbing out of a notorious hotspot northwest of Death Valley, we had cool morning riding temperatures and only mid-nineties back in town. High temperatures were well over 100 even on the coast in Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, and Salinas.

Our last three nights were spent in Lone Pine, a somewhat well known town for two reasons: it’s the gateway to Mt. Whitney, and the nearby Alabama Hills and High Sierra have been the setting for a number of TV shows and movies, including, you guessed it, High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart. Many scenes from Gladiator and the first Iron Man movie were shot here, as well as The Lone Ranger.

Lone Pine is smaller than Bishop, and I preferred it overall. There was no Dairy Queen to be found in either town, a serious shortcoming, but both towns have pretty much everything else you need after a hard day on the bike.

The plan was to do two climbs on most days with total elevation gain of 10,000’+ per day. This formula worked well during my 2008 trip to the Dolomites, Italian Alps, Haute French Alps, and Maritime French Alps. Of 11 riding days during that trip, five of them had over 11,000’ of climbing, with two more in the 9,000-10,000’ range. The 10,000’+ per day formula would prove to not work in the Sierras.

My goals for the trip were the same as for any other alpine cycling trip: First off, ride every foot of every planned climb, and if it works out, pick up a bonus climb or two. Second, ride every climb from bottom to top non-stop; take pictures on the descents. The last goal is to never, ever do “The Weave”, wobbling across the road to lessen the grade punishing one’s legs. I’ve managed to ride the big climbs in Europe with these requirements intact. How would I manage in the High Sierra?

Coming soon:

Part II Day by Day Riding Report

Part III The Hardest Climbs on Earth; The Sierras vs. the Rest of the World

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Taking Care of Business

Last Saturday I had intended on heading out to Mountain Park Boulevard on Squak Mountain. My goal for the day was to pick off the fourth of five climbs I had targeted for PR’s in 2010. As a matter of fact, setting new PR’s on these climbs was the only specific goal I had for 2010, but for me it’s quite important:

On Saturday, I just didn’t have it in me to head out to Squak, but I did give enough to get my PR at 164th on Cougar Mountain, the other missing link climb of my five (and the shortest climb). Thinking that I had pretty much thrown in the towel for the year, and rationalizing that four for five was “pretty good,” I thought I was done with going for it on hard climbs for 2010:

But something kept gnawing at me during the week. You don’t check off on a goal with 80% of it done.

Ending 2010 without attempting a run at a PR on Mountain Park Boulevard would have been like David Longdon and me leaving the Sierras without adding a day to do Onion Valley, one of the super hard classic climbs. We would have still had a great trip, but over the winter, I know I would have been thinking about Onion Valley. Who knows if or when I’ll be back to the incredibly remote eastern Sierras?

I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to get out there today and crank really hard on a 1000’ vertical climb. In fact, had Reg N. not been with me, I doubt whether I would have even made the trip, let alone the effort required. Both mentally and physically, I don’t think I had it all together today, but you gotta at least try!

Despite this waffling, I still had the confidence gained from going well on the other climbs, as well as the knowledge that I had never even done a “one off” on Mountain Park Boulevard. I’ve certainly made some hard runs up the climb during the HOWC, but never as hard as I could go.

I was using my heart rate band, as I am sometimes curious as to what my heart rate will be on a hard climb. I don’t use the HRM often, and once again, looking at my heart rate almost cost me dearly. As I worked my way upward, I felt like I was going pretty well. I wasn’t paying much attention to the power meter reading, instead relying on good old Rate of Perceived Exertion. I don’t have any sense of mid-climb “split times,” and while I know this climb intimately, I have no idea of what is a good time for me to any certain point…other than the top.

I didn’t feel great, but then I wouldn’t expect to when I was going so hard. I guess subconsciously I might have been looking for an excuse, because about 2/3rds of the way up I glanced down at my heart rate number. It was lower than I thought it would be, so my reaction was to think, “Hmmm…must be tired…can’t be going that fast without a high heart rate like I had on Horizon View.” Something in the back of mind told me, “Give up,” and shut it down I did, backing the effort way down. For about two minutes I dialed it back.

I caught myself thinking, “This is not the way to finish this off. You aren’t going to feel good about this if you don’t get going. Don’t quit on this climb like a (insert word of your choice); finish it like a (ditto).” And then something else hit me—I really didn’t have that much more to go. Why not use the unknown as motivation?

So I put my head down and I pedaled harder. The heart rate was up at the end of the climb, and I broke my PR by 12 seconds. Could I have gone faster? Well, I could have tried hard the whole climb, so I think so, but I think I’ll save that for 2011 when I will once again be trying to prove to myself that I am not another year older.

What’s my lesson here? First off, take the advice I give people that I coach. Listen to your body! Forget about numbers, how do you feel? How hard does the pace feel? Second, if you have an objective, focus on it and commit—if you are going to bail, bail before you start. Or as Chris Ragsdale (a man who knows something about suffering on the bike) says, “Every hill, every moment, right here, right now, re-commit, re-commit, there is nothing to save, give more right now. That's the Mantra.”

Tracy had the idea to order pizza tonight, and I kinda feel like celebrating. Over a span of 15 days, I set new PR’s on the five climbs I had targeted for 2010. Pizza did hit the spot. I’ll sleep well tonight, and I just know that I’ll have a nice content feeling when I think back to 2010 over the winter. When I get caught out in a deluge, I’ll draw upon reaching my goal for some motivation to keep on rolling.

Four for five? I don’t think that thought would put any zip into the pedals for me.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Window of Opportunity has Closed

I headed out for my ride this morning with the mantra “Kill the Hill” firmly in my mind. Something changed on my way out to Squak Mountain. It was a gradual process, a slight feeling of uneasiness, or perhaps of doubt that pervasively was creeping into my psyche.

It appears that the “window” for my PR attempts on local climbs has closed. Not physically, as I certainly am no less fit than three days ago, when on Wednesday I set a new PR on Horizon View-Summit, the most important climb of the five PR’s that I wanted to break. It is the mental window that has closed. Perhaps I was not rested enough from Wednesday, or it was simply the mid-October chill in the air. Whatever the reason, I aborted my plan to ride out to Squak Mountain to try and break my PR on Mountain Park Boulevard that I set in July of 2008.

When I reached Newport Way, I sat in the sun at Eastgate Elementary to ponder the decision, but in the back of my mind I knew that the decision had already been made. I decided to shift my focus to 164th, the other climb remaining on my 2010 “hit list.” For some reason, a shorter amount of pain seemed immensely more palatable than the full 1000’ climb of Squak.

Over eight days ending on Wednesday, I had already managed PR’s on three very hard climbs: Somerset Boulevard the hard way (from the north), Village Park Drive (Montreaux), and Horizon View-Summit. I think that is it for 2010, at least on the really steep climbs. Besides, I have to save something for next year! I’ll shift Mountain Park Boulevard to 2011, and I won’t have a go at Horizon View until 2012. That will give me two years on that one. If I am slower because I am older, at least I can rationalize that it was over two years and not one!

I rolled down Newport Way to give 164th a go, and give it a go I did. I was five seconds slower than my best time, but three seconds faster than my best time on a solo ride, and my wattage was a hair higher than either one.

My best time on 164th occurred during the HOWC that Emil led on 11/1/09. We had a fairly small group, and I entered the names of the riders into my riding journal. So I know who was there, but I don’t know for sure how 164th went down. I am highly confident that I drafted someone at least on the bottom of the climb, and pretty confident that I might have clung to the rear wheel of Jeff S. the whole way up the climb. Jeff was coming off of his 2009 Ironman, and I remember that he rode very strongly that whole ride.

The result of all of this rationalization is that I am taking credit for a PR today! Regardless of whether I benefited from a draft or not in 2009, upon examining the files, I discovered that today I rode .02 mile farther and climbed a few more vertical feet. I always time myself to a curb drain right as the main climbs ends, and I must have inadvertently picked a closer drain in 2009. There, that settles it. I am done with this PR thing for 2010. Four for five is not bad, considering I got the two that were the most important to me.

It seems logical to me that everyone would intuitively know what type of cycling they were best at, as well as what they enjoy the most. Most likely (and ideally) these focuses would overlap, but for me they do not. What I enjoy the absolute most are multi-day rides, preferably in the mountains. It’s not what I think I am best at, mostly because of what I think I am the worst at. My downfall is day to day recovery off of the bike, and if one is lousy at that, then hard tours force you into survival mode right off the bat. I recently reconfirmed this theory during a trip to the Sierras.

What I think I am the best at is also one of the other types of riding that I enjoy the most. For me, doing a group of 5-10 minute climbs as part of a hard ride is definitely a strength, I think mostly because I have had a lot of experience at it. Leading the HOWC since 2003 has been a continual learning experience, and it’s no coincidence that for a large part of the year we do 5-7 hard climbs as part of a 50-75 mile ride.

The key to enjoying a ride like the HOWC is to pace yourself, so that you are feeling as good, or almost as good (or maybe even better) on the last climb as you were on the first. I can’t quantify the effort level with a %; the climbing efforts are hard, but certainly not all out. I can quantify the effort required on my recent PR’s and it was 95%+, today included. On the HOWC, sometimes survival for me means “taking it easy” on a climb I don’t particularly enjoy, saving energy for later in the ride. On other rides, it might mean using a solid and consistent tempo, saving energy for the last few climbs when others have tired.

Conserving energy must take experience and not be totally intuitive, based on the number of riders who crack late on a HOWC. It’s human nature to have a go at it when the hammer drops and the adrenaline flows; experience is the only thing that can temper that rush.

Going really hard on a single climb is not something I enjoy. Does anyone really groove on this type of thing? Even the guys on TV look to not enjoy a mountain TT. Normally I have a window a little longer than 7-10 days to squeeze in a few of these, but in some years the window never even cracks open.

October is always a month where I just go out and ride for pure fun. I don’t think about numbers of any kind, or how hard I ride, or on some days even where I go. Rather than five PR’s on climbs as a 2011 goal, my goal next year is to have that PR window open during the main cycling season, and not in October! If I can do that, the PR’s will come, because surely the window will open wider in July or August.

We had a very cool start to a beautiful day, but I don’t think I have ever seen so many cyclists out, even during a mid-summer weekend. Many of these cyclists, myself included, were riding at a pretty spirited pace, almost like it was May and not mid-October.

When I went by the Capitol Hill Ferrari dealership on the way home, there still was not a soul in sight.

Man, I love to ride my bike.

I hope to see you on the road.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pondering Mortality

My birthday is in a few weeks, but my present has come early this year. My present is a sense of satisfaction derived from proving to myself that I am not another year older. I am at the age where some people start to “sense their own mortality,” and I must confess that I occasionally have those feelings. Mostly I put these feelings aside; after all, we are all aging at the same rate—day by day.

Some people have very detailed short and long term athletic goals, and that is admirable, especially if it motivates them to get out on the bike more. To make use of a phrase that is part of the latest overused vernacular, I don’t have a “bucket list” of items to be checked off.

I only had one goal for this year, and it’s the same goal I have every year. It sounds pretty simple on the surface, but it’s not, and it gets harder to achieve every year. My goal is always to be faster than last year’s version of me. In other words, my goal is to not become another year older physiologically even if I do age chronologically. Realizing that this is somewhat subjective and hard to quantify, I came up with a specific strategy for 2010.

At the beginning of the year, I identified five local climbs where I would attempt to break my own personal record time. Last week I nailed down PR’s on two of these climbs (Somerset the hard way and Montreaux) on the same day that I crossed the 500,000’ of climbing threshold for 2010—the fourth year in a row I have managed to do that. The PR on Somerset felt particularly good, because my previous PR came while leading a large Team HPC group up the climb during our climbing themed ride in 2008.

Not only am I at an age where one might start to sense their mortality, I’m at an age where a cyclist is probably doing well just to hold the status quo year over year, let alone improve. For me, measuring relative aerobic strength is the most meaningful way to track my aging process.

In July of 2008, right after I returned from a very hard three week European cycling trip, I set my personal bests on a number of Seattle area climbs. I’ve been timing myself on certain climbs over the years, and I think comparing the times gives me a pretty good barometer check of my fitness. During July of 2008, I was feeling as strong as I ever had on the bike, and my times reflected that.

Well, now it’s late in 2010, I am another two years older, and I honestly didn’t think my fitness was all that great this year. That all changed when I returned from my very hard September cycling trip to the Sierras with David Longdon. Since returning, it’s almost like someone else is pushing the pedals for me. This person is pushing the pedals harder than I normally do, and using a bigger gear on familiar climbs.

I have felt great since returning from the Sierras, and doing well on two climbs last week gave me some added confidence. Today, I picked off Horizon View-Summit, the third of the five climbs, and the one that is the most important to me:

Back in July of 2008, I took a full 49 seconds off of my previous PR on Horizon View, and I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to duplicate that effort. Three down and two to go. I hope the weather and my energy both hold out a bit longer.

One of these days it would be nice to peak during a hard alpine trip instead of after I return, but it seems like the only way I can peak is to do one of those trips. I guess I’ll have to take a pre-trip before my important trip of the year! Lots of endurance and tempo work seem to benefit me tremendously, and that is the type of riding I do on a tour with a lot of climbing.

Back in January, Tracy and I moved into the retail core of Downtown Seattle, about two blocks from Nordstrom. We’ve lived downtown for over 9 years, and I have always headed out to the eastside via the International District. Since the move, I still head to the tunnel through the ID, but I now come home over Capitol Hill. I suppose I could count, but I imagine that I have ridden by the Ferrari Dealership at Madison and 12th on Capitol Hill at least 100 times in 2010.

I have yet to see a single person standing in the showroom as I cruise by; no salespeople, and definitely no customers. For those who seek to temper their feelings of mortality by buying a Ferrari, it appears that the current economy has put a damper on that strategy. Who am I to judge? But for me, it’s far more satisfying to crush those mortality feelings while on the bike.