Cyclists’ oasis ready to serve

The weathered sign that leads wearied travelers to their oasis. Photo by Michael Collier.

The weathered sign that leads wearied travelers to their oasis. Photo by Michael Collier.

By Michael Collier

The scene is right out of a movie set: An alluring oasis, in the middle of a parched nowhere, that beckons road-weary bicyclists to come inside, refresh and put a smile back on their faces.

This is The Junction Bar and Grill. It is perched on the border of Alameda and Santa Clara Counties east of Mount Hamilton. It must be said that this looks and feels like one of the remotest places on Earth even if it’s just an hour’s drive from civilization in the San Francisco Bay Area. Caution to the faint-of-heart.

In this year’s drought conditions, it’s even harsher. The creeks flowing down from the series of nearby ridges are all dry — one tributary between Livermore and the junction has a few pools of standing water from recent rains. A biker must begin the slog up Mines Road from Livermore, or from Mount Hamilton, with a set of filled water bottles to avoid a crisis because there’s not a clean drop on the way. Even the deer seem even skinnier than usual.

For years, the joint has been a kind of last-chance saloon for many a cyclist (myself included) and motorcyclist. Imagine the collective gasp when the diner’s former owner closed its doors not too long ago. Fortunately, the angst was short-lived.

Pulled pork, boar’s head

The establishment’s new owner has updated the menu to include pulled pork sandwiches, which customers can polish of while looking at a boar’s head mounted to the wall. Mashelle Bullington also has made the place more welcoming and helpful to bikers who ride non-motorized two-wheelers. She has created a shelf filled with energy bars and other snacks for the ride back, and she has added tire-patch kids and over-the-counter pain relievers. It’s all part of a plan to serve Northern California’s vast and growing cycling community.

Besides pulled pork and burger on the menu, the cafe has beefed up its snack offerings to keep road cyclists fueled up for the rest of their journeys. Photo by Michael Collier.

Besides pulled pork and burger on the menu, the cafe has beefed up its snack offerings to keep road cyclists fueled up for the rest of their journeys. Photo by Michael Collier.

A few years back, there were at least three boar’s heads on the walls, and a cyclist entering the cafe may have encountered a crowd of hunters and ranchers who looked askance at someone like me, dressed in spandex and riding on tires 23 centimeters wide. It felt like they wanted me to beat it back to Berkeley.

But times have changed, for the better, at least for cyclists. More riders are taking longer rides (the Mount Hamilton loop is about 106 miles.)

In April, an expected 200 cyclists, including me, will set out in the early morning darkness on a Saturday to ride more than 200 miles. The Devil Mountain Double Century is the second-toughest of the California’s two-dozen double centuries, with more than 18,000 feet of elevation gain and some of the most grueling climbing anywhere. Riders will go to the top of Mount Diablo, Morgan Territory Road, Altamont Pass, Patterson Pass, Mines Road, Mount Hamilton, way-steep Sierra Road in San Jose and back to the San Ramon Valley.

Welcome respite

Any hint of an oasis in the context of such teeth-clenching climbs will be welcome to those of us battling against gravity, muscle pain and leg cramps. And the Junction Bar and Grill will no doubt be in our minds miles before we arrive there for lunch, at about the halfway point in the ride.

The stress on a cyclist’s body in such a difficult endurance test is huge. A doctor friend of mine said such an effort can take a couple of days off one’s life (although the ship-shape cardiovascular health of those who have trained properly likely will extend their lives far longer than that).

I know from my experience that the anticipation of an oasis — whether it be a welcoming water stop or tree-shaded hollow — is enough to lift my spirits for the next challenging hill. Anyone who has tackled a long ride knows the ultimate happy moment: When nearing the finish line and still pedaling.

It is for such moments that I thank people like Junction Bar and Grill owner Bullington, for understanding the importance of an oasis to the collective psychology of 200 cyclists. Make plenty of pulled pork sandwiches and you will put a smile on every one of them as they revive themselves while glancing at the mounted boar’s head.

This boar's head greets bikers of all types as they sidle up to the counter for sustenance. Photo by Michael Collier.

This boar’s head greets bikers of all types as they sidle up to the counter for sustenance. Photo by Michael Collier.

Devil Mountain Double Century: http://www.quackcyclists.com/dmd.htm.

Junction Bar and Grill:  47300 Mines Road, Livermore. 408.897.3148

Monday 11am – 8pm
Tuesday 11am – 8pm
Wednesday Closed
Thursday 11am – 8pm
Friday 11am – 11pm
Saturday 10am – 11pm
Sunday 10am – 8pm

This beats the Super Bowl

Resting near the end of the Strava 130K Challenge, which for me and a friend was an awe-inspiring loop to the top of Mount Tamalpais, through Muir Woods, to Point Reyes Station and Nicasio, where we chilled out at the landmark Rancho Nicasio

Resting near the end of the Strava 130K Challenge, which for me and a friend was an awe-inspiring loop to the top of Mount Tamalpais, through Muir Woods, to Point Reyes Station and Nicasio, home of the landmark Rancho Nicasio. Photo by Brian Conery.

By Michael Collier

I began last week with an 82-mile bike ride that included summiting Northern California’s majestic Mount Tamalpais on one of the most summer-like days I have ever seen in the middle of winter.

This week began with gray skies and the most rain we have seen in months in the drought-weary San Francisco Bay Area.

The contrast in weather between last Sunday and this Sunday is dramatic — but just as important to me is that my big event on the bike a week ago was way more thrilling than the 48th Super Bowl.

What a snoozer of a game, although I did enjoy the Muppets and pistaccio commercials. But the ride to complete the Strava 130-kilometer challenge beat the National Football League’s non-spectacle hands down.

There is something about flying down a mountain-top at 40 miles an hour on two skinny tires — while feeling the breeze in your face and enjoyong sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean — that elevates one’s spirits in a way that a TV event will rarely, or ever, do.

Kick in the pants

The bike ride with my neighbor and friend may not have happened at all if not for the folks at Strava, the cycling and running website based in San Francisco. This year they decided to raise the bar for outdoors-seekers by creating a challenge of the month for members.

January was a 130-kilometer ride in one day. It was up to the cyclists to choose their routes. My friend’s co-worker pitched a loop around Folsom Lake near Sacramento. We decided on something closer to home — a big loop encompassing Marin County’s most scenic parts.

We warmed up on the flats, spinning through the sleepy towns of Ross and San Anselmo before beginning the climb up Tam. With the sun on us, we rode to the top of Pine Mountain, then down to beautiful Alpine Lake, up to the ridge overlooking the ocean and finally to the top of the 2,500-foot peak.

After a short break, we began our descent and were blessed to be riding on virgin pavement most of the way to Point Reyes Station, including through Stinson Beach, where we ate lunch, and Bolinas.

We stopped for a final water break at Rancho Nicasio, a cowboy bar and night club, rode over White’s Grade and back to our starting point in Ross.

The bike odyssey had a dreamy quality, one that we won’t soon forget, and filled us with the satisfaction that few spectator sports would be likely to match.