Sunday, June 5, 2016

Ode to Lomas Cantadas

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language.


Years ago, I posted here my Ode to South Park, about one of my favorite cycling climbs.  Ever since, I’ve had this nagging feeling of something left undone:  an ode to another climb, that’s my very favorite.  So, here it is.  (Photos included here are of my daughter, who first rode Lomas Cantadas a couple of years ago.)

The Poem

Ode to Lomas Cantadas

El Toyonal is a beast of an uphill;
Pedaling here is a bit self-defeating.                                      2
Lomas Cantadas will sweeten your beating:
Insult to injury, sweet overkill!

Most riders wisely take Wildcat Canyon.
Half the uphill, after all—and you’re tired!                          6
Wisdom, alas, is a flaw when you’re mired
In glory, in notions of being a man.

  Sometimes caprice is much better than ease:
  Radical freedom is here to be seized!                                10

Footnotes & Commentary

Title:  Lomas Cantadas

What does “Lomas Cantadas” mean?  That’s a bit tricky.  Google translate says “sung hills.”  Hills that have been celebrated in song?  Perhaps.  But the spelling of “Cantadas” isn’t consistent.  Google Maps says “Cantadas,” but the street sign says “Contadas,” which would be “Counted Hills.”  Aren’t all hills counted, or at least eligible to be counted, making this modifier pretty much meaningless?

Among my riding pals, I’m always the one pushing to do this climb.  In fact, I tend to try to foist it on everybody I ever ride with.  Occasionally, someone will ask me what the name means, and I tell them, “Lomas means hills, and Cantadas is actually an acronym for ‘Can’t A Dana Albert Suffer?’”

Line 1:  El Toyonal

Okay, I admit this is a confusing start to the poem.  Why do I mention this other road?  Well, the only way to get to Lomas Cantadas is from El Toyonal.  But it’s possible to ride up El Toyonal without continuing on to Lomas; you can bail out and cut over to Wildcat Canyon and save yourself a lot of suffering.

Line 2:  self-defeating

Defeating yourself is really the point here.  An East Bay Velo Club teammate of mine, Muzzy, who is kind of the Obi Wan Kenobi of our club, says that the course doesn’t make the race—the racers do.  That is, any course can be hard if your competition is tough.  But for those of us who don’t race anymore, and do a lot of riding alone, motivation can be a problem.  That’s where it’s nice to have a gradient so severe that you couldn’t loaf if you wanted to.  You yourself become the foe who must be defeated.

Line 3:  sweeten the beating

A jolly good beating is one of the great joys of cycling (and similar athletic disciplines, I’d imagine).  The long term rewards (e.g., stress release, fitness, the freedom to eat whatever you want whenever you want in whatever quantities you want without getting a big gut like E.T.) are well and good, as is the worthy knackered feeling you get in your legs after a ride.  But on top of all that, the immediate, in-the-moment, muscle-searing, chest-heaving discomfort of extreme exertion can provide a strange kind of tactile pleasure, if you do this often enough to acquire a taste for it.  There’s a purity to athletic struggle, a distillation and concentration of what it means to be alive in your body, and it can be habit-forming.

Line 4:  insult to injury

The injury mentioned here is metaphorical; of course I’m not advocating going out and harming yourself.  But the insult is literal:  I find it impossible to tackle a climb like this—averaging over 10% with pitches of 15-20%—without feeling sheepishly insufficient to the task.  On top of that, I doubt I’m alone among cyclists in instinctively comparing one’s current effort to one’s past best, which so often recedes ever further into history.  For ageing bikers like me, this can be disheartening or even humiliating.  So we disparage ourselves.  We can’t help it. 

Case in point:  I haven’t trained hard in six months and am at least ten pounds heavier than usual.  I’ve been afraid to ride Lomas this year, but yesterday I finally bit the bullet (despite being totally fried from four days of riding in a row).  My time (including El Toyonal) was 22:27, whereas my personal best was 16:47, set about two years ago.  So I’m almost 30% slower now, a difference which manifests as a grotesquely slow cadence and a lot of weaving back and forth like a paperboy.  I didn’t just feel slightly off my game yesterday morning; I felt borderline incompetent.  The insults I hurl at myself in such cases are nonverbal, but nonetheless vicious and cutting.  And yet, even as I lament my poor form, I enjoy the satisfaction of doing something about it.  

Line 4:  sweet overkill

You could accuse me of being redundant, with “sweeten” in the third line and “sweet” in the fourth.  But “sweet” as an adjective has taken on so many meanings in modern vernacular, I’d argue it has almost nothing to do with the verb “sweeten.”  You might tell somebody he has a sweet bike, but if you asked a bike shop guy, “How can I sweeten my bike?” he’d find your usage highly nonstandard.

Line 5:  Wildcat Canyon

East Bay cyclists do all kinds of short rides in the Berkeley hills, but our longer rides invariably take us across these hills to destinations east, such as Mount Diablo.  Our last obstacle to getting home from these adventures is crossing back over this ridge of hills.  Wildcat Canyon Road is the logical choice, as it’s a pretty mellow climb and usually you’ve done plenty of suffering by the time you reach it.  Zoom in on the below map and you’ll see the three possible routes:  Wildcat (farthest north); El Toyonal with the cut-through to Wildcat; and El Toyonal to Lomas.  (Note the “Decision Point” callout in the lower right of the map.)

Line 6:  half the uphill

Wildcat gains only 187 meters (614 feet) at an average gradient of 5%.  Lomas, on the other hand, is essentially twice as hard, gaining 372 meters (1,221) feet over about the same distance.  In other words, it’s twice as steep, and takes you to a much higher summit than you need to reach.

The problem is, on the way to Wildcat you go right by the turnoff to El Toyonal.  To me, this is a gauntlet thrown down that cannot be ignored.  To continue straight, toward the easier climb, is to acknowledge my own laziness and/or weakness.  The turnoff taunts me, and I, in turn, taunt myself, along with anybody else who’s riding with me—unless my pals beat me to the punch.  It’s like a dare.  A double-dog-dare.  You reach the intersection and—if you ignore the sober, serious, and completely reasonable voice in your head, and listen instead to the gonzo, irrational troublemaker in your skull, or on the bike next to you, you turn left.  You know it’s a bad idea and that’s essentially why do you it.  One moment of rash decision, when you make that turn, is followed by around 20 minutes of paying dearly for it.

Lines 7-8:  mired in glory, in notions of being a man

We really are mired.  Modern men, the sensitive and enlightened kind, can tell themselves—and others—that they’re over all that macho bullshit, but they aren’t.  No, not really.  They might deceive themselves, but we all have vainglorious impulses, chronic ones, rooted in testosterone and savagery and a lust for combat (whether it’s man-vs.-man, man-vs.-nature, or man-vs.-himself).  If a male completely subjugates or denies this impulse, he will face the consequences.  Maybe that’s the root of all this emo nonsense. 

Myself, I see sport as a great way to get this stuff out of our systems in a healthy, consequence-free manner.  I suspect that the truly sexist men among us, such as the ones who belittle their female colleagues, are reacting to feelings of unresolved inadequacy, which they senselessly blame on the women who (they fear) harshly judge them.  So when I see a male cyclist taunting his pal, casting aspersions on his manhood based on whether to take the harder climb or the easier one, I call that good clean fun.

Usually, this climb isn’t one where I’ll encounter other bikers.  But occasionally I do, and once or twice a battle has occurred.  Here’s an entry from my training diary, from August 2013: 
I had a smackdown with a d’bag on a really expensive bike, clad in really expensive clothing.  He took a good while to overtake me, and then rode just ahead of me, and he fricking stunk!  I don’t mean he reeked of sweat, which is normal and understandable, but he smelled like shit!  If he’d just been faster everything would have been fine—he’d have gone on ahead and I’d be rid of him.  But it was as though it took everything he had to pass me, and now we were in lockstep.  I wasn’t going to slow down just to escape the stench, especially because my gearing is just barely low enough for this grade to begin with.  So I sat on his wheel tolerating the odor.
I figured this guy would try to be in the lead at the place where the road splits [one route has a bit of a descent before eventually joining Lomas], so he could take the easy route and pretend he won something.  I didn’t want to give him that satisfaction so I passed him and drilled it just before the junction, where it’s is super-steep, hoping to Cancellara him.  I did get a pretty sweet gap and in the process made the halfway point in record time.  Alas, the rich & stinky d’bag ended up doing the same route I was, so I had to keep hammering.  At the really steep parts I dug extra deep and increased my lead, hoping to shatter his morale.  I managed to extend my gap to ~30 seconds by the end.  I hope he felt good and slapped-down.  Anyway, the really great part is that I have a new lifetime PR for Lomas [17:05]! 
It’s worth pointing out that solo, self-motivated trips up Lomas, after your pals have turned off, are just as common (and in my case more common) than getting shoehorned into the effort by your pals.  (I’ve done this climb well over 500 times, but only a few dozen times with teammates.  Huh, I guess this is a “counted climb.”)  Choosing Lomas is a manner of personal pride, of knowing you didn’t slink away from a challenge.  Beyond that, dudes sometimes do check up after the fact:  “So did you do Lomas on the way back from Diablo?”  The mere chance of this inquiry, and the glory of saying, “Of course” rather than, “Well, no, I kind of had to get home” is sufficient motivation, for many of us, to take on the extra suffering. 

This was even the case after a brutal group ride up Mount Hamilton a few years back, when the day’s most stalwart rider, Kromer, diverged from the group to ride the Morgan Territory Road solo, and then—on a whim—climbed Mount Diablo.  On the way home, after more than 150 miles in the saddle, he decided to take on one more challenge.  In his e-mail to the club that night he wrote, “You know what’s next. I knew you’d ask, and I knew I had to say yes. So. Lomas.”  Many of us, particularly the ones who’d cheated and took Bart home (under the Berkeley hills), had to bow down before him.

(All this male competitive stuff aside, of course I acknowledge and respect that other drives than machismo exist, and women also challenge themselves and each other.  But I only see these behaviors; I cannot experience the motivations behind them.  I’m telling my story here and cannot tell theirs.  I thrill to the yarns my teenage daughter has been writing about her high school mountain bike races, and if she ever has her own blog you can bet I’ll link to it!)

Line 10:  radical freedom

It isn’t the case that a cyclist is strictly compelled by male ego, peer pressure, or insecurity to take the harder climb.  We are fully capable of saying “screw that” and riding up Wildcat, and we often do.  But by the same token, we are not compelled by logic or fatigue to ride up Wildcat, either.  Any rationale we could apply to either decision is flimsy, and to pretend otherwise takes us toward self-deception.  We are not doomed to take one route or another in the way that a chair is doomed to be a chair.

Meanwhile, we are free to throw all rationale out the window and exercise our radical freedom by behaving perversely.  (This freedom carries responsibility, but very little is at stake here other than lactic acid buildup and residual soreness.)  Steering the bike toward El Toyonal, while thinking “This is a bad idea,” is a reckless act, and perhaps that’s the point.  Humans behave recklessly all the time, but usually it’s eating that second bag of chips or giving in to the temptation to buy something we can’t afford.  (Nike’s slogan “Just do it” is a brilliant strategy for helping make this happen.)  An extra serving of pain and struggle is a pretty minor consequence for getting out your irrational, impulsive ya-yahs.

Appendix:  Why did I write about South Park years before Lomas Cantadas?

It’s been more than four years since I wrote my Ode to South Park.  Why did that one come first, and why has it taken me so long to honor my very favorite climb?

It comes down to laziness, frankly.  As poems go, I’m most comfortable writing sonnets, as I’ve done a lot with this form and consider myself something of an authority.  Knowing what I do about the iambic pentameter featured in a sonnet, I’m well aware that the phrase “Lomas Cantadas” is fundamentally incompatible with this meter.  Consider:

I really want to ride up South Park Drive

Works great, right?  The inflection naturally falls where it needs to.  But check this out:

I want to ride up Lomas Cantadas

Everything is fine until the last word, and then the meter breaks down.  Unless you force an emphasis (inflection) on the last syllable (i.e., CANT-ah-DAS), you break the rules (which the reader grasps intuitively) of iambic pentameter. When you pronounce this word properly, within a line of iambic pentameter, you experience the poetic equivalent of being clotheslined.

Having recently reviewed a couple of my old Kroopian poems—which are based on dactylic trimeter—I was emboldened to finally tackle this ode.  In case you’re wondering, this was a lot harder than writing a sonnet.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.


  1. More than once I have tacked on the extra miles entailed by going Richmond Flats in order to avoid going up Wildcat... Wow, I really hate climbing...

  2. I love what you have shared! I feel we have a connection, as I wrote the following poem about cycling Moeser Lane a few years ago. Lomas is so worthy of your literary prowess! Cheers to suffering! I suffer, therefore I am!

    My poem:
    Oh, the pain the pain
    of Moeser Lane.
    How I love the pain
    of Moeser Lane
    I can't begin to explain
    why I cycle
    Moeser Lane.
    A climb of
    unrelenting pain.
    All I know
    is that I love
    the pain
    The pain that
    Moeser Lane.

    1. Thanks Giorgio! I'm glad you liked the poem, and yes, we are kindred spirits, fellow bards of the bar tape (to quote a teammate of mine). I love your poem about Moeser Lane. I looked that up on Google Maps, figuring you must mean the section between Ashbury Ave and Arlington Blvd. It's funny--Google Maps wouldn't let me chart a bicycling route straight up Moeser. It kept diverting me to roundabout routes that weren't so steep! I selected Walking and it showed the profile: 656 feet of vertical gain in only a mile! You're not kidding--that's a brutal climb!