The Himalayas in my back yard

Mount Tamalpais casts a golden sunset over the San Francisco Bay Area, home to three peaks of 2,500 feet elevation or more. Photo by Michael Collier

Mount Tamalpais casts a golden sunset over the San Francisco Bay Area, home to three peaks of 2,500 feet elevation or more. Photo by Michael Collier

By Michael Collier

Imagine this: Hopping on your bike and climbing more than 29,000 feet  — the equivalent of walking vertically to the top of Mount Everest — in 20 days or less.

And this: Completing the challenge without leaving your home turf. In my case, home was the San Francisco Bay Area, and specifically in the hills of the East Bay, right across the bay from Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, which rises 2,500 feet from the Pacific Ocean.

In early November, I signed up for the Strava Climbing Challenge, along with thousands of others across the globe who use the fitness and social media site. The challenge was to climb at least 8,848 meters, or 29,029 feet, between Nov. 7 and 27.

I made that goal — with room to spare — with eight rides, none of which went beyond a 25-mile radius from my home in the East Bay. Most rides involved climbing between 2,800 and 4,100 feet, and most of my courses were variations of a small number of segments.

By varying my rides a bit each time, I warded off boredom. And on one ride, I came upon a teenager who had crashed his car into a retaining wall in the woodsy enclave of Canyon,  just east of Skyline Road in Oakland. The kid was okay but he thought his life would be over once his parents found out what had happened. The car was a high school graduation gift.

I spent the better part of an hour, as the afternoon sun began to fade, telling him how every teenager I know, including myself, crunched up a car at least once before turning 25. Then his parents arrived, I told them he was a good kid and I went back to my climbing.

After every ride toward my goal this month, I measured my total elevation gain, watching it increase as I anticipated my next outing.

My total after 17 days: 29,747 feet. I was tempted to push my total past 30,000 feet but stopped myself because it was Thanksgiving morning, the final day of the challenge, and it was time to engage with my family.

Still, my total elevation gain was in the top 13 percent of the 47,000 riders participating in the challenge. In addition, the Everest-like elevation I completed marked the first time I had climbed so far in a month where I was not training for a double century ride.

And the best part is that I did it all from the hills just beyond my front porch.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Wheeling images

This was my best day ever on a bike: The Mount Tam Double Century in 2013. The day was cool as we went up and down some great hills from San Rafael to near the Russian River and back.

This was my best day ever on a bike: The Mount Tam Double Century in 2013. The day was cool as we went up and down some great hills from San Rafael to near the Russian River and back.

I met Jacquie Phelan, a very fun woman who was the three-time winner of women's mountain bike racing in the mid-1980s, at a 2012 Fondo in the Davis area where some of the greatest U.S. Cycling legends rode with mere mortals. Oh, and Jacquie finished ahead of me.
I met Jacquie Phelan, a very fun woman who was the three-time winner of women’s mountain bike racing in the mid-1980s, at a 2012 Fondo in the Davis area where some of the greatest U.S. Cycling legends rode with mere mortals. Oh, and Jacquie finished ahead of me.

Michael stands outside a hotel in Los Alamos (Santa Barbara County) on the eve of the Spring 2012 Solvang Double Century. Ride capsule: I got miles off course in the pre-dawn fog, broke the rear derailleur cable 90 miles into the ride and struggled against fierce and chilly headwinds. I had to quit 25 mikes from the finish.

Michael stands outside a hotel in Los Alamos (Santa Barbara County) on the eve of the Spring 2012 Solvang Double Century. Ride capsule: I got miles off course in the pre-dawn fog, broke the rear derailleur cable 90 miles into the ride and struggled against fierce and chilly headwinds. I had to quit 25 miles from the finish.

Here is Michael at the top of Salsbury Pass, the highest point in the Spring 2012 Death Valley Double Century. That day in March, with temps in the mid-70s, I twice rode through the lowest spot in North America -- 280 feet below sea level. I finished under a brilliant starry sky.

Here is Michael at the top of Salsbury Pass, the highest point in the Spring 2012 Death Valley Double Century. That day in March, with temps in the mid-70s, I twice rode through the lowest spot in North America — 280 feet below sea level. I finished under a brilliant starry sky.

Here I am at the lunch stop on the 2013 Chico Wildcat 100, a beautiful century with some good climbs. Capsule: My riding buddy struggled after 80 miles and I carried him to the finish at mile 110 against steady headwinds.

Here I am at the lunch stop on the 2013 Chico Wildcat 100, a beautiful century with some good climbs. Capsule: My riding buddy struggled after 80 miles and I pulled him to the finish line at mile 110 against steady headwinds.

Do I look relaxed? At the same point in the Knoxville Double in 2012 I was ready for the support wagon. In 2013, I nailed it, thanks to strength training to my core muscles. No leg cramps as I reveled at the beauty of Lake County the upper Napa Valley.

Do I look relaxed? At the same point in the Knoxville Double in 2012 I was ready for the support wagon. In 2013, I nailed it, thanks to strength training to my core muscles. No leg cramps as I reveled at the beauty of Lake County the upper Napa Valley.