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
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
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.