Monday, October 24, 2022

Ride Report - Steepest Mile in CA


Every few years I get together with my friend Peter for a few days of epic bike riding. We shoot for something brutal and long and, if the weather cooperates (which it didn’t in 2016), we generally achieve it. This year, Pete came all the way out here from Colorado to ride in the Santa Rosa area, where he used to attend training camps. We did four rides and this was the hardest of them. What seemed like a fairly straightforward 108-mile cruise with a mere 11,000 feet of climbing turned out to be much worse, in the best (i.e., worst) way. Read on and slake your thirst for Schadenfreude!

Executive summary

We confronted some lousy weather, a lot of climbs, and then one particular climb that in difficulty not only far exceeded anything we could have imagined, but included the steepest paved mile in all of California and the third-steepest in the country. At the summit was a douchebag in a kiosk who made us turn around, due to a road closure unknown to the Strava route planning app. This dead end cruelly lengthened an already savage ride, as we had to hammer our asses off to make it back to Santa Rosa by dark. Fortunately, we ate very well before, during, and after.

Short version

To make these rides extra epic, Pete and I largely forego training. In the month before his visit, my longest ride had been a mere 76 miles; his, even shorter. This unwise behavior gives our endeavor an extra bit of frisson; after all, anyone could pull off a really long and hard ride by actually preparing for it.

Breakfast was a leftover slice of pizza from Cibo Rustico in Santa Rosa. To be precise (and I’m fact-checking via my receipt), it was “Italian Sauage Muchroom” pizza. (How do you pronounce “Sauage”? Sewage? And much room for what?) The pizza was pretty good, even though our stinky room at the Motel 6 didn’t have a microwave oven. In fact, the fridge cost $6 extra per night … that’s how barebones this place was. And when I say “stinky” I’m not just talking about us stinking it up; it came pre-stank with the odor of stale cigarettes and the chemicals they use to mask the odor of stale cigarettes. (Yes, it was technically a non-smoking room, but when the property overall is basically a giant ashtray, the stench permeates everything.)

Now, I don’t really like cold pizza. I know many people do, but the congealed grease etc. just isn’t my thing. Fortunately, we had large cups of steaming Peet’s coffee (since our motel room also lacked a coffee maker) so I took a trick from the Dutch playbook and warmed my ‘za over my coffee cup like they do with their stroopwafels. It was slow going but worked pretty well.

Is that enough breakfast for such a long ride? Of course not, but then, what would be? The buffet court at Sizzler? So we set out on the ride knowingly undernourished. The weather threatened to be cold and overcast the entire time. (During our 47-mile ride the day before, the sun never did show its face.) Look how much clothing Pete is wearing. (I myself neglected to bring leg warmers because I was foolish enough to trust the weather forecast.)

But then, two hours in, after a couple of painful climbs, the sun came out. Things warmed up, and we did a few more climbs, and then hit the big climb—oh my god, that climb—and that’s when shit got dark. I don’t mean it got literally dark, until it literally did, but that was hours later. First we had a lot of hammering to do. In case you only care about food, I’ll save the details of the climb, and its horrific aftermath, for the full report. Let’s talk about dinner now.

Having seen Los Molcajetes Bar and Grill from the road, and having decided it looked lively (since Cibo Rustico the night before had been a bit quiet), we headed over there to refuel. This was of course after a palliative beer, showering (without shampoo, this being the Motel Sux), and a sufficiently long rest that we could walk again. Los Molcajetes was pretty well hopping, but the music was terrible. It’s not like I’m a snob, but this sounded like somebody’s five-year-old pounding on the keys of a piano, or perhaps a harpsichord. It was a tune of maybe seven or eight notes repeated ad infinitum. And the waitress was powerless to recommend a beer … perhaps she doesn’t drink. She could have just lied and said, “Oh yeah, the Farting Fathers Brewing Scuzzy Suds & Saliva Ale is amazing,” or she could’ve hedged and said “Well, the Locker-Room Lager is popular,” but she seemed almost embarrassed to be asked at all. So we tossed the dice on beers from Laughing Monk and I don’t remember a thing about them. We were pretty out of it, honestly.

But the salsa was good … there were two kinds and they were nice and fiery (or was it just my scorched throat?). There was also some cheese goo that hit the spot, though our motor control was barely up to the task of dipping our chips in it. My chille [sic] relleno burrito was huge and very tasty. (What is it with Santa Rosa restaurateurs and their spelling?) There was this odd orange sauce, almost like a romesco, over the top which was tastier than I’m making it sound. Pete had the carne asada plate and although the idea of meat made all kinds of sense, I almost always get a chile relleno burrito if it’s on offer.

Long version

A couple of hours in, when the gloom lifted, I put on my vest and we descended in the sunshine for a bit. A little over 50 miles in we reached a little gas station convenience store near Lower Lake and I indulged in a couple Hostess cupcakes (chocolate with trans-fat “kreme” filling) and a large can of Coke. At checkout I encountered this big biker guy (well, he looked like a biker, anyway; I didn’t happen to see his hog). This dude had tattoos on his face. The tats were words, and I was really curious what they said, but I was afraid to look at the guy for long enough to read them. I could well imagine him saying, “What the fuck you lookin’ at!” and slamming me into the Doritos display. So I just moved along. Pete told me later that the dude was friendly with the cashier and they were chatting out by our bikes. “Look how skinny those bikes are!” she said, and he replied, “Yeah, those dudes look super fit.” But probably that was just the meth talking.

Okay, that was inappropriate. I really shouldn’t assume someone’s a meth-head just because he has tattoos on his face. He might have been a really nice guy. His tats might have said something like “I’m thankful” or “Love wins.” In fact, maybe it was Pete who was on meth. Or hell, it could’ve been me! No, no, no, take none of this seriously. We did this ride pan y agua! Shoot, I should probably delete this whole paragraph, but I never edit my ride reports. It’s too much hassle.

Clear Lake is pretty.

After Clear Lake we hit a hard section that was mostly uphill for about 13 miles, gaining over 1,500 feet. The scenery was nice and my tasty cupcake snack was serving me well, but I have to admit, the climbing was starting to get old. And then we hit Socrates Mine Road.

Let me say first that we had no idea what we were getting into. Even though I’m the Californian, I did nothing to contribute to the route planning. Pete used this fancy feature of Strava where you tell it how many miles you want and what kind of terrain (e.g., flat, hilly, super hilly) and it gives you several options. There was no disclaimer like “This route includes a climb that will have you PUKING FOR DECADES.” Yeah, we knew we had some vertical gain left to accumulate, but never expected anything like Socrates Mine Road.

This climb is bad enough on paper: as detailed on the PJAMM Cycling website, it climbs about 1,800 feet in 3.5 miles. Discounting a couple short downhill bits, it boasts an average gradient of 10%. But that’s not what makes it so hard; neither is the fact that we started on it over 70 miles into our ride. The tough part is that 26% of the climb is between 10-15%, 17% of it is between 15-20%, and 5% is more than a 20% grade! The steepest mile of the climb averages 16.3%, making it the steepest paved mile in California. Look at this schematic from PJAMM:

Increasing the brutality was the totally crappy condition of the road: it was cracked into rough cubes, like a pan of over-baked brownies. If you rumpled this road just a bit it’d be like the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix. The poor surface could have been due to a big fire some years back. There’s not much scenery unless you like looking at burnt trees.

Fortunately, there’s nobody up there so you can hear a car coming from really far away. (No more than two cars passed us the whole time; in fact, maybe it was just one and I hallucinated the other.) Pete’s gearing was a pretty stingy 34x25. I had a 27 cog in the back; between that and my lugubrious cadence (between 20-40 rpm), I was well off Pete’s pace. (This is always the case when the going gets tough.) At one point Pete stopped for a bit so he could snap photos of me weaving my way back and forth across the road, which was the only way I could keep from tipping over.

God, such misery. Of course I knew I’d suffer on this ride, but who knew a climb could actually be this awful? Climbs I used to think of as hard, like Mount Diablo and Mount Evans, now look, in retrospect, like playgrounds. How long could this go on? I had no idea. It seemed that forever wasn’t out of the question. Fortunately, I knew better than to pretend I had any choice in the matter. I pondered (non-verbally) this sentiment from my Everest Challenge “Pep Talk” post: “The trick is to pretend you have no choice and to take one pedal stroke at a time, riding like a robot.  Climbing stupid, you might say.  Not ‘climbing stupidly,’ which I would never recommend, but ‘climbing as though you were stupid.’” I proceeded with the mindset of pure fatalism, as though it could never occur to me that this climb, this route, this ride, indeed this very sport, were actually optional.

Have my arms ever been worked so hard while cycling? Absolutely not. I logged over two miles more than Pete on this ride, and that’s probably because I was weaving so much. It was ridiculous: I was barely making progress toward the summit. If this description is getting tedious, good—so was the climb. At least you, albertnet reader, don’t have to fucking pedal! You’re just sitting there, feeling all butt-hurt that I’m going on so long about this—but at least your butt doesn’t actually hurt, and you can just close your laptop or toss aside your phone and go do something more fun. I was trapped on that damn climb and everything hurt. If those cracks in the road had been any deeper they’d have stopped me cold and I’d still be out there.

But, eventually, we did reach the summit. Now the ride would get really good: one more climb (surely easier than this one), and it’d be flat or downhill for the final 25 miles. A well-earned victory lap, you might say. But that’s not what happened. Instead, just as the road tipped downhill, we came upon a closed gate with a kiosk and this big dumb kid sitting in it. “You can’t go,” he said (and these were probably the first words he’d uttered all day). We asked why not. “Not allowed,” he said, after managing his second thought of the day: another salvo in his battle against mental bankruptcy. We assumed the road blockage had something to do with a geothermal power plant up there; maybe they’re afraid of terrorists or something. But Google Maps and Strava had both indicated the road was open to through traffic. Pete asked the kiosk wizard if he had a map. “Of what?” the cretin asked, dumbfounded. Pete replied, “Of your ass. I want to see if I can find your head in there.” No, Pete didn’t actually say this, he’s far too much of a gentleman. Of course the guy had no map of anything. So Pete started looking at his phone, trying to figure out another route. “I’m going to have to ask you to move along now,” the dunce said (and this might have been the longest verbal utterance of his life). I guess he considered our very presence a dire threat to the geothermal operation. And so, contrary to all human impulse, we actually turned around and headed back down Socrates Mine Road.

It wasn’t a very fun descent because we had to brake so hard. Pete’s brakes eventually started hissing even louder than mine. Even at the speeds that naturally result from such a grade (and I note that the road boasts three runaway truck ramps), the descent seemed to take forever.

(A few final footnotes. One: a photo on the PJAMM site shows a “NO OUTLET” sign at the base of the climb, which obviously would have been helpful; our theory is that this sign burned down in the fire. Two: another sign, also no longer extant, warned that “This area can expose you to chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects … including arsenic, benzene, asbestos, crystalline silica, and radionuclides.” Three: I’m assuming that on top of all this, every time a cyclist rides up Socrates Mine Road, God kills a kitten.)

Well, shit. Now we had about forty miles left to go, and two major climbs. Of course we hadn’t budgeted any time for this, so making it back to the Motel Sux by nightfall was going to be a major challenge. Exhausted as we were, we had to hammer. Into a headwind, of course.

“Get on my wheel,” Pete said. “Go as hard as you can. If you start to fall off, yell out and I’ll slow up [a tiny bit, just enough to put you on the absolute rivet so you won’t slow us down too much, you wanker],” he said. (No, he didn’t say the stuff in brackets; my brain filled that in. Accurately.) Damn, it was like a team time trial except I was too lame to even take a turn at the front. And it went on and on. I was no longer capable of pedaling in anything like a circle. Instead my legs took turns throwing punches at the pedals … and I punch like a girl. (Note to my daughters: I didn’t know you ever read my blog! And I’m just kidding! I know either of your could totally kick my ass!)

Our last big climb was 2.2 miles at 6.3%. At the base, some jerk in a pickup truck, in the opposite lane heading toward us, angrily yelled, “Fuck YOU!” I really don’t know what his problem was, other than presumably feeling that the existence of other, probably superior, people on this planet is automatic cause for maximum outrage. “I’m not angry at you … I’m just disappointed,” I did not say to him. It’s actually too bad his outburst didn’t anger me, because anger might have helped fuel my effort. That climb, short and shallow though it truly was, hurt so bad. Amazingly, we made pretty good time up it, staying right around 10 mph. At the top we stopped briefly to split an energy bar. Straddling my bike, I wasn’t even sure I could stay upright. I collapsed onto the handlebars, my arms on the brake hoods, my head dangling between them. Naturally, Pete laughed at me. You would have, too.

We set off again, and I have to say, only in hindsight do I truly appreciate how well Pete and I get along, even under circumstances like this. When he told me to ride as hard as I could so I wouldn’t get dropped, I could have said, “Oh, easy for you to say, Mr. Big-Shot-Former-Pro, with all your talent and strength and character! You’re nothing but a big bully!” and that’d have been well within spec for a knackered middle-aged cyclist with a 40% hematocrit. Meanwhile, Miss Manners would’ve surely forgiven Pete had he said, “Oh, boo-fucking-hoo, poor Mr. Parasite is all bent out of shape because he has to pedal harder than he wants to even though he’s getting a free ride without having to fight this damn headwind for even five seconds because we both know he’s too much of a pussy!” Instead we just grimly, and silently, got on with it. I acknowledged to myself the gift of this draft, no matter how unpleasant the pace was, while Pete presumably thanked his lucky stars I’m not even more weak and worthless on a bicycle.

So, what more is there to say? We hit another convenience store, right around dusk, and I wondered if it might make sense to summon a Lyft car from there (Uber is dead to me), and have one of us stay behind with the bikes while the other fetched my car from the motel. But there was a big sign that said something like, “ABSOLUTELY NO LOITERING. GET YOUR STUFF AND GET OUT OR WE’LL SEND YOU HOME TO MOTHER IN A CARDBOARD BOX.” Plus, we’re not quitters. So Pete ate some more of the little gummy bears he favors, I inhaled two more delicious Hostess cupcakes, and we headed back out. Somehow we made it over Petrified Forest Road (1.4 miles at 9.1%), notwithstanding our petrified legs.

And, eventually, as civil twilight gave its last gasp, we homed in on the Motel Sux. Needless say, in the final mile Pete’s rear tire blew out—PCCCCHHEWWW!—and he didn’t even flinch. Just rode it in.

Well, you know the rest. For $6 a night, at least the 100-decibel motel mini-fridge did a good job of keeping our beers cold. These were Racer 5s, just right for relaxing our destroyed muscles. Here is the obligatory post-ride Beck’st. Note that I’m not in any way mugging for the camera here. This is as close to a smile as I could manage.

So: was this ride even worth it? Of course. This is the kind of ordeal that case-hardens a person. And we’re going to need that hardness as we continue our descent into middle age and, eventually, decrepitude. Wish us luck, and check back in a year or two for a full report of our next exploit.

Ride stats

  • 119.37 miles
  • 8:37:47 ride time
  • 13.8 average speed (ouch!)
  • 11,896 feet cumulative elevation gain
  • 117 bpm average heart rate
  • 151 bpm max heart rate
  • 67 rpm average cadence
  • 3,886 kilocalories burned
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