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.

Coaching a Rocky Mountain high

Phil Morton at Loveland Pass, looking good. Photo courtesy of Phil Morton.

Phil Morton at Loveland Pass, looking good. Photo courtesy of Phil Morton.


By Michael Collier

This is a feel-good story. Well, not all feel-good.

It’s about a guy named Phil Morton, who is an experienced cyclist and member of my bike club in Berkeley, California. This Spring, he decided to reach out for support from his friends as he prepared for the ride of his life in the Colorado Rockies.

One of the first things he did in his quest to ride a grueling, six-day bike trek was to find me. I am a cycling coach, and my specialty is helping endurance cyclists like Phil train, physically and mentally, for difficult rides. Phil was my first student and a very good one.

Last year, Phil participated in Ride the Rockies, an event sponsored by the Denver Post newspaper. It was a lot more struggle than fun. His legs ached, his stomach was upset regularly and, well, he wasn’t really a happy camper.

A new view

My goal as his coach was that he would turn things around — that he would be physically comfortable enough on the bike and find pleasure in viewing the breathtaking vistas of snow-capped peaks and reach a meditative-like state as he turned the cranks, one revolution at a time, and ascended mountain passes with elevations approaching 12,000 feet.

On my first on-the-road coaching session with Phil, we rode up Mount Diablo together. The first thing I observed was that he panted a lot. I demonstrated how to breath deeply and he tried it. He made it to the top (3,850 feet elevation), still practicing a “one one-thousand,  two one-thousand” breathing rhythm. With his mindful breathing, much of his physical struggle disappeared and he had enough oxygen to feel more energetic.

Phil is a coach’s dream; a motivated student who listens well and learns quickly.

Training regimen

I wrote up his weekly goals for distance and difficulty, leaving it up to him to ride routes of his choice. I encouraged him to keep up his yoga class and add more core strength exercise. In the four weeks before he departed for Colorado, Phil rode two hilly centuries (100 miles each) and logged more than 40,000 feet of climbing on his Strava page.

On our last ride together before his mountain adventure, Phil and I rode to the 2,500-foot summit of Mount Tamalpais. He was riding at his optimal pace with confidence and grace. He was fit and several pounds thinner than before he began training.

Nasty weather

Phil arrived in Colorado the first week in June, ready to roll. On his first day, he pedaled through thunderstorms, hail and snow. With snowflakes accumulating on the highway and temperatures dropping into the mid-20s, the Colorado state patrol closed the course and pulled Phil and others into waiting rigs.

The next morning, Phil awoke in his tent to temperatures in the teens. The weather improved a bit after that. Phil seemed unflappable.

On the fourth day of the ride, Phil wrote this on his Facebook page:

In the groove

“RtR Day 4: … It was just a great day of riding. It started off quite gently, and the rhythm of pedaling was like a meditation”

On the final day, Phil posted this: “This is it – Loveland Pass @ 11992′. Anticipation or dread?” Then this, in the final miles: “It was quite simple — just turn the pedals at your pace, drink enough water and eat sugar.”

This tale shows how one person can achieve a major life goal with undying devotion. It is also how a coach who is similarly devoted to a holistic approach to training cyclists can help get the student to the top.

Michael Collier is a USA Cycling certified coach. For more information about his approach to coaching, click on Coaching on the home page of




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.


From darkness to clarity

By Michael Collier

One of my favorite cycling experiences is riding in the low light of late afternoons in December. In the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s possible to see a full moon rising right after a golden sunset — with a great view of the Golden Gate.

Sunset over Mount Tamalpais, Calif.

Sunset over Mount Tamalpais, Calif. Photo by Michael Collier.

Darkness dominates our waking hours come winter, when the Dec. 21 solstice brings the longest nights and shortest days of the year. It’s what makes us want to sleep in and go down early. As the daylight hours shorten, so do my rides.

Instead of 40-50 miles, I am satisfied with 30 miles up on top of the East Bay ridge line between Berkeley‘s Grizzly Peak and Sibley Volcanic regional park in the Oakland hills. The serenity is comforting, even as he days slip into darkness.

On the shortest day of the year — and the longest night — a friend of mine who practices inner healing held an event for her Facebook friends that aimed to open us up to the state of darkness, the abyss of nothingness. I used the process to let go of some of my demons.

I got on my bike the day after Christmas and rode back up the ridge to Grizzly Peak on a brilliant sunny morning. I felt a lightness of spirit as I viewed 360 degrees of vistas from Mount Diablo to the east to Skyline south of San Francisco.

A sense of clarity envelopes me as I near a personal milestone: to ride 250,000 feet of elevation gain on my bike this year. I am at just under 245,000 feet and expect to crack my ceiling on Sunday.

As I approach that milestone, I realize the importance of having short-term goals. They keep me attentive and on a course — and keep my mind free and clear and concentrated on riding and soaking up the beauty of my surroundings.


On one of the darkest nights of the year, clouds veil a near-full moon over the San Francisco Bay area sky. Photo by Michael Collier.