Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Nostalgic Summer Solstice Mt. Diablo Adventure

(Check back soon for update with Bruce's photos of this ride)

Welcome to Flashblog for what appears to be bi-monthly updated reports on my part.  Time flies by as I'm sure you will agree.  Today's story revolves around the biggest mountain in these parts, Mt. Diablo in Danville, CA.  Months ago, in a beer and pizza inspired daze, I signed myself on to lead a Team Alameda ride on June 22.  If I had been less dazed I would have considered the time of the year and the weather challenges of riding the Devil Mountain on the 2nd day of Summer.  Less dazed I wasn't, and yesterday arrived with a bit of trepidation, and here is what transpired.

What Diablo can sometimes look like in the winter

Gathering intel prior to the ride day, the forecast called for warm to quite warm (85) weather at the base of the mountain.  For me, this is acceptable, but anything hotter I would not want to do, as I've climbed D on hotter days and it is just too much suffering to be enjoyable.  I want to lead a fun ride, not put people in jeopardy of heat stroke.  Anyway, I green lighted the ride with the bail out option of turning around and riding down if it got too hot and unbearable.

At the steps of Kaiser a group formed, and to my relief I did not have to turn away any new or under experienced riders.  The pre-requisites for riding Diablo are considerable, and beginners are not encouraged.
There were 7 men and 2 women, we men had previous Diablos under our belts, but the women were trying the full climb for the first time.  Rens ten Holt, our Dutch rider, had ridden half way previously, and Julie Hirshon was experiencing the mountain for the very first time.  I've done many rides with both of them so I didn't have any doubts they would be less than successful under favorable conditions.  Of us men, my favorite photographer Bruce Bothwell signed on, international Indian climbing sensation Sri as well, Shel Milligan was testing out his new knee, Big Bill, Matt, and lastly, and leastly as it turned out, Big Tom were there as well.

Backtracking a bit, there was some anxiety experienced by Flash over the route as I was informed just last Thursday that the north route up the mountain was absconded by another bike group to conduct their time trial racing event.  I had it all planned out nicely, then this came up, so I decided to go down south and come up the southgate route.  That way was not free of anxiety either, as my preferred route goes through the country club themed town of Diablo, of which the residents have been lashing out at the hordes of cyclists riding through their area to get to the mountain.  The offending cyclists make a lot of noise shouting amongst themselves, they ignore stop signs, and generally behave rudely towards the residents.  The town was talking of posting a guard to check resident IDs to turn cyclists away.  Yesterday I had no idea if they had implemented this plan.  The alternative is to ride on Diablo Road, which has no shoulder but plenty of speeding SUVs racing between Danville and Blackhawk. ( I used to drive it as part of my work and I do not consider it safe for cycling.)

It took us an hour and a half to get to Walnut Creek via BART, and after the required restroom stop, we set off under sunny mild weather.  A nice feature of the southgate route is the 10 miles of flat then mildly rolling hills route to get to the previously mentioned enclave of Diablo.  Once there, there was a bit of dissent about riding through the town, mostly from Julie, who is employed as a Federal Agent, and was alarmed by the large sign at the entrance which states;

The sign that greeted us is larger and more intimidating than this one

Julie stammered " Let's not go this way.... I don't want to lose my security clearance!"  She's by the book. I found thae idea twistedly wrong that riding her bike through a country club town might in some way shape or form trigger a Homeland Security violation.  Is this the world we live in?  Has it come to this?  My thinking was if a sheriff was on patrol, and someone complained about us, he would simply ask us to leave, no harm done.  I instructed the group to ride under 10mph, stop at all stop signs, and be nice and cordial to the residents.  We did this, and in fact, the resident were cordial to us, we didn't get any harsh vibes at all.  In fact, a resident offered us a gem of a shortcut, a shortcut camouflaged to look like a solid fence, but in fact was a gate out of Diablo onto the road just above Athenian School.  Awesome new Flashcut!

Finally, on The Mountain

If it seems I've written a whole lot just to get to the actual ride report, well, that is just what the actual ride is like---it takes a long time to get there, it takes planning and thinking.  Its a mini-expedition.  And this is why I like it.  I've climbed this mountain many time, but I never take it for granted.  Any mountain that is so high as to have different climates is to be respected and therefore properly prepared for.

We began our climb.  Sri, powered by yogurt as our joke goes, rocketed off the front as he is apt to do lately.  Sri has really developed as a strong climber, but I knew we would catch him after his yogurt energy burned off.  Bill and Matt, both strong as well, led the way.  I stayed mid-group with Rens and Julie, Shel and Tom were just back a ways.  Julie, whippet-thin, is a natural climber as was not stressing at all.  Rens was having a more challenging time of it, as the lower grades were sun baked, desert-like, and very warm indeed.  It takes time to settle into a long climb, the first leg being the hardest to acclimate.  Resting helps a lot, gives the body time to adapt and do what it needs to do to continue the work ahead.  We had a good rest a the entrance kiosk where cars pay to get into the park.  Shade and water after a couple miles of uphill. Tom rolled in last, several minutes behind, and was not in great shape, he needed to rest while we carried on, so we agreed to regroup at the junction.

The next phase of the mountain is my favorite, its a rolling flank section with a bit of downhill through a campground.  Good speeds and breezes can be had here, its refreshing.  After this, the climbing resumes with excellent views of the Livermore Valley, and a good pitch up just before the junction of north and southgate roads, which is at the 7 mile mark of the 11 mile climb.

Nice shaded bench for resting

Its always a happy feeling to make the junction, there are always lots of cyclists there resting, milling about, its a real cyclist scene.  We all rejoined under a large shade tree and waited for Tom to arrive.  When he got there he wasn't doing well at all, said he was light headed.  He decided to rest on the bench  and wait for us while we finished the climb, then came back down.  That would take at least an hour, maybe two.  Better safe than sorry.  The others were all game to go on, Shel's knee was good, nobody was overheated or dehydrated, so on we went.

Not far above the junction is a climate zone line I call the inversion line, because in the winter Diablo can be very cold down below, then suddenly, right around this line of elevation, it gets unseasonably warm.  Descending through it is a shock as in a few seconds the temperature drops from comfortable to bone chilling.  Its like diving into a cold alpine lake.  But this day there were no inversions, just infrared heat reflecting off the road.  After a while, the road takes on an endless feeling, the climbing is constant with no flat areas to recover. The exposure to the elements is complete, shade is sparse, this is why temperature is critical here as the heat can wilt you completely, or worse.

Bill, Matt, and Julie were far ahead, I was riding with Rens, keeping up a conversation for both our sakes.  She implored me to go ahead at one point and not wait for her, but she overestimated my wants or needs, the pace we were going was just fine with me.  I'm not about personal records, or being first to the top, or even being all that I can be.  I just want to be what I need to be to get the job done.  That means not beating myself up, respecting my body-- not just in the moment, but also the days following when I have to live in it doing other things.  I don't like feeling wiped out and miserable.  I pretty much kept my heart rate at 130-140 all day which is a good workout, but not hard exertion.  That is pretty much my current philosophy on riding.

Rens was riding well, grinding it out.  She gets red faced, sweats, curses, breathes hard, but at the same time shows good steady form on the bike.  I told her she looked "pro" at one point, and what I meant is that some women transcend gender styles and ride more like the men..usually the pro women show this kind of form.  Its hard to describe, but I know it when I see it, and somehow Rens naturally has this.  Meanwhile, Julie had flitted off like a hummingbird, reminding me of Melne back in her glory day.  I'm sorry I missed not being there to see her summit for the first time.

Bruce was waiting for us at the foot of the last pitch before the top.  There are names for this pitch, things like Widow Maker, or Summit Wall, or The Ramp, its 17%  for 100yds or so  that will take every last bit of energy you have and max out your heart rate.  I enjoy extra low gears on my bike, but still, it took all the reserves I had to just ride up it without wobbling or zig-zaging.  Rens dismounted, tried walking but decided that was worse for her feet, so remounted and finished on her bike.  I had a minivan behind me, I could hear it right behind me, its radiator fans whining, but I was not going to ride on the gravely shoulder to give it room to pass me, I had decided that in advance.  Take the road people!  Especially here.

YES!!  Another successful Diablo ascent!  Its always as good as the first time.  One thing I really like about warm weather riding is the cold water head pour...fill a water bottle with the cool water at the top and pour over head.  It is truly one of life's great feelings, and I filled the bottle half dozen times offering pours not only to myself but to my teammates.  It was mild at the top, with a cool easy breeze.  We lingered then descended, Bruce rocking a Hero cam on his helmet.

The descent is very long, one of cycling's great downhills.  We took it easy, made it last, and took the northgate road back as originally planned, the bike race had packed up and left.  Everyone agreed to beat it back home instead of lunch in Walnut Creek.  Back on the island, Shel, Bruce and Rens joined me in my back yard for a wind down beer.

So in the title I wrote "nostalgic", and here's why:  I had a great time, probably as good a time as I can have on the bike.  Whenever this happens, I resonate with all the great rides that have come before it, the past merges with the present, gets blended into a euphoric soup in which nostalgia is the secret spice, so even in the moment, while I am riding, I feel the bond of nostalgia happening, like a sweet tailwind pushing me down Highway One towards Santa Cruz.  Its like I'm living in my own cycling Fairy Tale.  What's better than  that?
Keep Pedaling, 

PS:  Flashblog on the wall at Alameda Bicycle via Sweeps McNulty: