The real Devil is lurking

Fog shrouds the bottom of Mount Diablo, which rises a majestic 3,850 feet over the eastern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. Photo by Michael Collier.

Fog shrouds the bottom of Mount Diablo, which rises a majestic 3,850 feet over the eastern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. Photo by Michael Collier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Michael Collier

You’d think that a double century that is one of the most storied in California would make prospective entrants shiver just reading the list of mountains and passes that riders must grit their way over to finish the event.

The Devil Mountain Double Century on April 26 starts with a climb to the top of the East Bay’s Mount Diablo, at 3,850 feet, followed by another summit on nearby Morgan Territory Road, a steep climb to the top of Patterson Pass east of Livermore, up and over Mines Road and up the long and tiring backside of Mount Hamilton to its 4,209-foot peak east of San Jose.

Surviving those climbs, while important, is not the moral of this bike odyssey.

Its Achilles heel is the appropriately named Sierra Road, which hits even the toughest climbers like going up Mount Everest.

It comes 156 miles into the 206-mile event and is insanely steep and narrow. So steep that it is trouble even for some professionals who ride up that hill as part of the annual Tour of California race.

Sierra Road in the east hills above San Jose, rises steeply -- more than 1,800 feet in about 3-and-a-half miles. Photo by Michael Collier.

Sierra Road in the east hills above San Jose, rises steeply — more than 1,800 feet in about 3-and-a-half miles. Photo by Michael Collier.

 

A warning

Leonard Moore, who is in the California Triple Crown Hall of Fame for finishing 50 double centuries, said in a recent email:

“To me, the only climb that matters is Sierra Road. I look forward (warily) to that on every other climb.”

He told me to ride to the top of Sierra Road before the day of the event, to get to know how grueling it really is. I set out to follow his sage advice. I routinely ride all the key segments of an endurance event to prepare myself physically and psychologically for the challenge.

A few days ago, I made my first trip up Sierra Road, starting from the Olivera Egg Ranch in the flats and immediately rising like a jet taking off from an airport.

Dealing with stress

In the first five minutes, my heart-rate monitor started beeping, alerting me that I was nearing my maximum range. I continued, slowly, encouraged by a much younger rider who passed me on his way up.

The average grade on the 3.8-mile climb is about 9 percent, which means many parts are much more pitched than that. One of my bike club members said she had expected the ride up the back of Mount Hamilton would be the hardest on the course — until she got onto Sierra Road and walked her bike much of the way.

I settled into my saddle and worked on my breathing, which helped calm me a bit (a relative term under such duress). About 3 miles up, a guy who is older than I am came up behind me, chatted a bit and passed me before stopping at the top.

Victory!

Feeling relieved at my accomplishment a few seconds later, I got off my bike and sent a text message to my friends and family. “Conquered Sierra Road!

While the climb is a killer, the scenery inspired me as I gazed at the verdant hills all around me. A veteran cyclist from my home club, the Grizzly Peak Cyclists, clued me in this week on another beautiful scene amid the overall misery of Sierra Road. If you are riding to the top in the post-sunset twilight, stop for a minute and turn around to view of the lights in Silicon Valley below. It’s a stunning scene.

The Tour of California, the most successful professional stage race in the United States, often takes riders up and over Patterson Pass, elevation 2,300 feet, in the far eastern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. Photo by Michael Maloney, courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Tour of California, the most successful professional stage race in the United States, often takes riders up and over Patterson Pass, elevation 2,300 feet, in the far eastern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. Photo by Michael Maloney, courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Knowing the score

When I start the Devil Mountain Double in two weeks, I will respect every summit, including the ones that often wear out even the best riders.

But now I know full well which one of them is the real McCoy.

 

 

 

 

 

Mount Diablo springs back

By Michael Collier

Poppies are bursting out on Mount Diablo after the recent rainfall, adding a burst of color to a mountain still charred by a wildfire last year. Photo by Michael Collier

Poppies are bursting out on Mount Diablo after the recent rainfall, adding a burst of color to a mountain still charred by a wildfire last year. Photo by Michael Collier

The East Bay’s tallest peak, scorched in September by its worst wildfire in decades, is coming back to life.

Brilliant clusters of orange poppies cover parts of the 3,850-foot-tall Mount Diablo. Recent rains have turned the dry grass from brown to verdant.

Such an explosion of new life would be visible by Spring, experts said after the 3,000-acre blaze, which was sparked by target-shooting practice on private property. The fire was the mountain’s worst since 1977.

The unfolding show of wildflowers, known as “fire followers,”  are bringing hikers, cyclists and motorists to Mount Diablo State Park.

The palette is very likely to get more colorful in April and May, said Seth Adams of the preservation group Save Mount Diablo. Besides poppies, the post-inferno comeback should include star lillies, golden ear drops and wild cucumbers, he said. The best place to view nature’s art gallery is along Summit Road, which goes to the top.

Still, large swaths just below the peak’s highest regions remain distinctly barren. Watch this video on how the fire changed the mountain. (It was produced by Save Mount Diablo, Mount Diablo Interpretive Association, California State Park Foundation and the Thomas J. Long Foundation in partnership with Joan Hamilton at Audible Guides to the Outdoors.)

Reforestation will take more than a few seasons. But the mountain appears to have dodged, thanks to an unusually dry Winter, the prospect of major erosion in areas of the peak scarred by the fire.

Still, drought conditions have prompted water restrictions in the park, including the shutoff of drinking water and the closure of rest rooms with flushing toilets. Park officials are asking visitors to bring their own water, especially if they plan to go on longer hikes.

For details on wildflower hikes and other information, go to Save Mount Diablo and Mount Diablo State Park.

This pine cone and others will reseed Mount Diablo in the coming years.

This pine cone and others will reseed Mount Diablo in the coming years. Photo by Michael Collier.

You wanna become a better cyclist? Call Coach Collier

By Michael Collier

You can now call me “Coach Collier.”

A few days ago, I passed the rigorous test to become a cycling coach sanctioned by USA Cycling, the official governing body for all competitive cycling in the United States.

My achievement completes one of my highest goals for my 50s, right up there with finishing 50 double centuries. (I have done nine so far.)

Now I can hang out a shingle for any cyclists who want to improve their performance and raise their goals — such as completing their first endurance event of 100 or 200 miles.

The test was long and difficult, consisting of more than 100 questions and multiple-choice answers. I answered 88 percent of the questions correctly. (Applicants must score 80 percent or better to pass.)

Killer take-home test

And you thought preparing for a century was tough. Prospective coaches have 14 days to finish the online exam, which is like one of those killer take-home tests in college. I finished the test on day 14, just as my eyeballs began to see spots on the computer screen.

The exam was an endurance test of its own, involving nearly a week of reading hundreds of pages of background material, from the coaching manual to detailed rulebooks for road, mountain, track and para-cycling. Those rules are set by USA Cycling and UCI, the international cycling governing body.

Now I know more about the nuances of track racing strategy than I ever thought I’d care to learn. I know the maximum gear ratios for junior racers in competitive racing.

Biology lessons

What else: One gram of protein or carbohydrate has 4 calories, while the same amount of fat has 9 calories. I know the difference between aerobic and anerobic metabolism and that the muscles that Mark Cavendish uses to win sprint finishes are made of short, twitchy fibers while the muscles that the best mountain climbers need are those with long, slow fibers.

I learned how to calculate maximum heart rates in the context of bike riding, and how to measure the amount of oxygen taken in by a cyclist (which translates to greater performance). I know the components of red blood cells that carry that oxygen.

I also know how to measure lactate threshold, the point at which the intensity of riding reaches the body’s maximum effort that can be sustained. Think of it as riding for as long as you can with your legs burning up.

Just as important as these lessons is the life lesson: I have at age 57 dedicated myself to a new pursuit that has reawakened me to the joys of living and learning.

Find me on the USA Cycling website.

 

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.

How drought alters our experience

San Leandro Reservoir in the San Francisco Bay Area is Lowe than normal for January.

San Leandro Reservoir in the San Francisco Bay Area is lower than normal for January. Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency in California. Photo by Michael Collier.

By Michael Collier

This week I took my first extended bike ride since Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared a drought emergency in California after the driest year on record in 2013 and no relief on the horizon as we hurdle into 2014.

We all knew this was coming, and it is going to affect our experience of the outdoors in several ways.

The landscape is so dry that it irritates our breathing passages, sometimes causing severe allergies and asthma. It causes wildlife to wander more often into human settlements in search of food. And it can lead to disastrous fires.

Hold on a minute

The flip side of this emergency is that the weather is downright wonderful right now. We don’t have to go to New Zealand or Argentina to get summer weather in the winter.

The first thing I noticed on my recent ride was how many people were enjoying the outdoors — cyclists, runners and walkers alike.

As I climbed to the top of the East Bay ridge line, I was also impressed by the number of trees in full bloom — on January 22, not March 22. The mid-day sun felt like the warmth on a late-Spring day in a normal year. But these are not normal times.

The wind patterns in California’s coastal regions typically blow from west to east, thanks to a steady flow in the jet stream. But larger weather conditions interrupting that air flow north of the state are causing the wind here to blow consistently in the opposite direction — a pattern known as Santa Ana winds in Southern California or Diablo winds in the northern part of the state.

Such gusty winds are dangerous to coastal communities, as the San Francisco Bay Area saw in 1991, when neighborhoods in the East Bay hills burned to the ground in one of the worst urban wildfires in the U.S. at the time.

More fires

Since Jan. 1, there have been more than 150 wildfires across the state, according to fire officials — about six times more than normal.

The likelihood of more and more-intense fires this year is bad news for cyclists and promoters of dozens of  bike events. Riding near fires is a health danger and could cause cancellations of such events. A few years ago, I participated in a double century near Solvang (Santa Barbara County) as a fire raged in the mountains to the east. More recently, a fire on Mount Diablo closed the state park for days last summer — and even after it was reopened the mountain smelled like a barbecue.

Officials at Death Valley National Park, the most-popular venue for Spring bike tours, have ordered the park closed to bike events — not because of fire danger but to evaluate traffic safety as more motorists and more runners and cyclists compete for space on park roads.

But that and the likely ravages of continuing drought are a warning flag to outdoor-lovers.

“The climate is changing, and not for the better,” Brown said this week in his state of the state address, adding that drought is a “stark warning of things to come” for California.

Most folks who savor their experience in nature aren’t likely to become couch potatoes. One silver lining of the crazy weather this year on the West Coast — from Seattle and Portland south to San Diego — is that watching the changes will be quite engaging to us.

This flowering cherry tree in the Berkeley hills would typically be devoid of blossoms this time of year.

This flowering cherry tree in the Berkeley hills would typically be devoid of blossoms this time of year. Photo by Michael Collier