Adam likes to ride
It fills his big head with pride
Justify fried food
Saturday, 25 July – Clovis, California:
(See also my photo album from this ride)
The Climb to Kaiser. Reportedly one of the 10 toughest one-day cycling events in the country. This coupled with my lack of success with the also extremely-difficult Terrible Two and Devil Mountain Double found me rather trepidatious as I arrived in sunny Fresno, CA on Friday afternoon. I searched in vain for lower gears at the excellent CycloPath bike shop (conveniently located about one block away from my hotel), then drove over to Clovis to checkin. I got my rider number, patch, water bottle, and various product samples. I talked with a woman from Davis who was also doing this ride for the first time. Coincidentally, she turned out to have the room next to mine at the EconoLodge. The fellow at the information table was a veritable fount of knowledge about the ride. He said that the climb up Tollhouse/Pine Ridge was the crux and if you made it up that, you could probably finish the ride. I had a very mediocre spaghetti dinner at Perko’s Cafe, then retired early, after noting to my delight that my hotel TV carried OLN so I could catch up on the Tour de France when I got back from the ride.
I woke up at 04:20 after sleeping as well as I ever do before a big event, suited up, and drove over to the Veterans Hall in Clovis. It was in the mid-70s, which at 5am, forecast a rather warm day! I milled around with everybody else, waiting for 5:30 to come around. At 5:20, a staffer gave us a little pep & safety talk, and at 5:30 sharp, we rolled out, one large mass of riders. I initially hung towards the back of one of the lead groups, wanting to take advantage of the rare opportunity to ride in a peleton. With so many riders in front of me, speeds of 25mph were nearly effortless. The police department was blocking every intersection that had a light, so we had no impedances heading out of town – cool. I stayed with the pack for perhaps an hour before we encountered some rolling hills and the fast folks threw down the hammer.
I saw no reason to put in any effort so early in the ride, so I fell back, soon hopping on a very long paceline (at least 30 riders) that was going a more agreeable pace. I stayed with them until the climb up Wildcat Grade began in earnest. On paper, Wildcat looked like it’d be a tough climb, but as it was still early in the day and my legs were fresh, it didn’t feel too bad at all. As I climbed, Felix passed me and we chatted for a few before he went on ahead, being a much faster climber than I. I continued along and soon arrived at its summit and the first rest stop (24.5mi). I saw Glenn and Tanya from the HP Death Ride team (who I’d also seen on the Sierra double-metric this year) and rode out with them.
There was a nice little descent out of Wildcat continuing on Watts Valley Rd. We climbed the Burrough Grade, which wasn’t at all difficult, but was lovely, and then rode through the scenic Burrough Valley. Glenn and Tanya are also faster than I, and they soon went ahead at a small upturn in the road. After rolling through the valley for a bit, there was a fun descent to Tollhouse Rd. A rider crashed on this descent, breaking his hip and femur, I later heard. Ouch.
I climbed a little ways on Tollhouse Rd., passing a SAG motorcycle pulled over to the side. Being a smart ass, I couldn’t resist asking him if he needed a pump or water or anything. He said he’d see how funny I felt in 20 miles. Not very, it turned out! In short order I arrived at the second rest stop at the Sierra Elementary School (37mi). They had delicious cookies here, and a girl was interviewing riders, whether for school or work I did not know, but I was happy to answer her questions either way. After sufficient procrastinating, I set back out to attack Tollhouse/Pine Ridge grades.
Tollhouse climbed, frequently quite steeply, around the side of a mountain, with a handful of 180° switchbacks. While a difficult climb (its grades reach a pretty lofty 19%), the views were excellent and the road condition was superb, so the time passed relatively quickly. There was also an almost-total lack of non-SAG traffic (this was overcompensated for shortly). I took a brief rest at a water stop at a ranger station (44.5mi) to mix up more Sustained Energy, then continued on a very steep half mile to join Hwy. 168.
This is where the payback was for the untravelled roads of the previous miles. There was a constant stream of SUVs towing boats for the entirety of the 5 mile, mostly shoulderless climb up Pine Ridge. The drivers were courteous enough for the most part, but their sheer volume made this stretch of road rather unpleasant to cycle on. While there’s nothing steep on this road (it is a highway afterall), it does manage to gain 1400′ of elevation in 5 miles, so its not like you’re recovering from Tollhouse on it! After a bit, I pulled into the much-anticipated rest stop at a church in Shaver Lake (50mi). The combined Tollhouse/Pine Ridge climb gained 4100′ of elevation in a mere 12 miles, and I definitely felt it! They had flushing porta potties with sinks here – ooohhhh! After mixing up more Sustained Energy and refilling my hydrapack, I rolled out.
Continuing on Hwy 168, the auto traffic thinned out as I rode around Shaver Lake, then it pretty much vanished when I passed the boat launching area (which had a long line of cars waiting to launch their craft). A left turn on Big Creek Rd. shortly thereafter began a short climb to the top of the Big Creek canyon.
A staffer at the top told us to be careful on the descent, as there was a cyclist down towards the bottom of the ride. Uh oh. The road descended rather steeply, with sharp, blind corners. I took it easy both because it was an unfamiliar road and due to the warning about a crash. I came to the crash scene about 2/3 of the way down and saw one of the worst sights I’ve ever seen. The cyclist was covered in a tarp as paramedics and staff stood by sadly. The rider had not survived the accident, which I later heard was due to the rider taking a turn too fast and wide and hitting an oncoming pickup. This gruesome scene would stick with me for much of the rest of the day. My heart goes out to the rider’s family, friends, and the driver of the car. I continued descending Big Creek at a greatly reduced rate of speed, as my mind wasn’t entirely focussed on the road at this point. Across the canyon I could see a cut in the mountainside that I presumed (correctly it would turn out) was our climb back out. A set of large pipes plunged down into the canyon, feeding a humming power plant in Big Creek. I stopped briefly at a water stop in the “town” of Big Creek (61.5mi), then set out to conquer the steepest climb of the day.
The road immediately turned brutally steep, easily at a near-20% gradient. I was quickly humbled by the vertical, shadeless climb, which did at least have the common courtesy to feature some really nice views. I was in my lowest gear (30T front, 26T rear), slogging along at 35rpm. 34. 33. 32. 31. 30. Screw this, I can walk faster than 2mph! So, for the first time since the 1999 Death Ride (my first-ever organized bike ride), I hopped off my steed and did a hike-a-bike. A woman just ahead of me had the same idea, and we walked together for a ways. I was happy to have some company to distract me from both the accident and the painful climbing (it wasn’t an easy walk either).
Only a couple riders passed us, and we nearly caught up to a rider in front of us! One of the ever-present and ever-helpful SAG motorcycles talked us through the next stretch, telling us where it was steep and where it was not. I remounted my bike on a flatter stretch only to immediately cramp up, so off I came again. This was an ego-killing climb indeed! After what seemed to be an eternity, but was probably only 15 hours or so, I got to a reasonably flat stretch and rode into Huntington Lake. The lake looked like some wonderful oasis, with its tree-lined shores and deep blue waters. A couple miles of rolling hills around the lake brought me to the lunch stop (67mi). The crowd here was definitely thinning out, and I was surely towards the back of the pack, but at this point I didn’t really care so long as I finished. Given that there was “only” one more difficult climb, it seemed likely I would make it. I snacked and tried to stretch, but that just resulted in more cramping. I’d dutifully been taking 2-3 Endurolyte tablets every hour or so, and eating Tums at every chance, so the only likely reason for cramps was a lack of water despite my drinking several lakes’ worth. I talked to some nice folks on a tandem (yes there were one or two!) from Oakland/Berkeley. I mentioned my nervousness about this ride due to my knee problems on the Terrible Two and they said, “oh, are you Adam Paul?.” Apparently they recognized me from my injuries 🙂 After talking to them for a few, I reluctantly set out to get the last hill of the day over with.
Another 5 lovely miles along Huntington Lake Rd. brought me to a left turn on Kaiser Pass Rd. After passing a gushing water spout, the road climbed pretty gently for the next 5 miles. It was a wide two-lane road with plenty of room for passing, and not much traffic. The views to the right of the high Sierra were excellent. I actually enjoyed this bit of the climb! Soon after I started the ascent, Glenn and Tanya came down and shouted hi as they zoomed by. The gentleness of the climb was not to last, however, as I passed a large winter road-closure gate and the road narrowed to 3/4 of a lane and got much steeper.
I was still feeling OK (“OK” here being entirely relative to my state on Big Creek!), so of course, the road steepened accordingly. Oh well, I was under a mile from the top now, and no way was I going to not make it! Descending riders and the ubiquitous passing SAG vehicles encouraged me that I was almost there. A nice 18% gradient on a right hand turn spiced things up a bit, and finally I got to the summit (79.5mi) to the cheers of the wonderful staffers. It had taken me an appalling 10hrs 50min to get here from Clovis! They recorded my number and valet-parked my bike while I sat in a shady chair for a few, refuelling and relaxing. I didn’t feel I should stay very long, though, as I had only an hour and forty-five minutes to get back to the Shaver lake rest stop, 28 miles away, with a 1300′ climb between me and it.
I carefully picked my way down the old road, which was much too twisty and bumpy for any real speed, shouting encouragement to the few remaining riders, then bombed down the modern road back to Hwy. 168. The return route went around the other (southeast) side of Huntington Lake on 168, which was by this time, thankfully, lightly trafficked. The next 9 miles consisted of 4 rolling hills of a mile or two each, happily none very steep. So this was Tamarack Ridge. I resolved to do my darndest to make the time cutoff, and “hammered” (again, a relative term here) up the climbs as best I could. They proved to be less awful than I was expecting, and I soon passed the water stop at the summit (96mi) and then enjoyed a fast and fun descent to Shaver Lake. From my calculations, I should arrive at Shaver just before its cutoff time of 18:30 if I kept my speed at 15’ish or more. I passed the boat launch area, now un-crowded, and heyyyyyyyy a hill! Oh yeah that’s right – we descended a fair bit from the Shaver rest stop to the actual lake in the morning, which meant, that’s right, a climb back up to the stop – argh! The rolling climb was not at all steep, but I hadn’t factored it in to my mental speed calculations and I wasn’t sure how strict they were going to be about the cutoff times. Most non-Death-Ride rides don’t care too much if you’re off by a little bit, and thankfully this ride didn’t either as I pulled in to the rest stop at 18:37, 7 minutes past the official cutoff. Nobody made any noise about it being late – they just noted my number, parked my bike, and asked me if there was anything I needed. I was now almost surely going to finish – yay! The woman I’d walked up Big Creek with was here, without lights. Not a problem at this hour, but she was unlikely to get back to Clovis before dark. I told her she was welcome to borrow my backup light (a 4AA affair) at the last rest stop if she needed it. I picked up my Niterider light, topped off my liquids and rode out.
The descent on 168 from Shaver to Pine Ridge was quite enjoyable. There was moderate traffic, but I was going about the same speed as it was, so no problem there. Before too long, I turned right on Auberry Rd. and endured some more gentle rolling hills before another sweet downhill into the central valley AKA Hell. The descent on Auberry, while fast and fun, did have several sharp corners to mind, and the temperature rose very sharply as I descended. It went from on the warm side of pleasant to sauna in no time flat. I pulled into the water stop in Auberry (128mi), but they had no water, only ice, so on I went towards the last stop about 10 miles away. Feeling that the ride would have been too short otherwise, I took a wrong turn on Frazier Rd (the road sign was a bit vague as to which road was which – the left one is Auberry), but quickly saw the error of my ways. Two unchained, unfenced dogs chased me back to Auberry Rd., and I was back on course. It was a nice rural ride through an open furnace to the last rest stop at the Millertown Store (138mi).
They had ice-soaked towels here, which felt realllllly nice on my neck! I had a soda and refilled my various liquid containers with ice-cold water. The lightless woman pulled in as I was getting ready to leave, and asked to take me up on my offer to borrow my backup light. After getting it affixed to her bike, we rode out to put the last 14 miles, which we were assured were pancake-flat, behind us. Lumpy pancakes perhaps. The tail end of Auberry Rd. featured some itty-bitty hills that necessitated the use of my nearly-lowest gears – I had nothing left to give the hills, no matter their size. Fortunately after that it really was flat, and I was able to keep an OK pace (mainly by sucking wheel). I was starting to feel pretty un-well and parched, but the end was near now. It was full-dark now, and a pair of SAG vehicles provided us with a rolling blockade, one in front, one in back – now that’s service! They signalled and shouted out every remaining turn, and provided much encouragement. A couple other riders caught up with us and we 4 rode into the finish together at 21:36 to the cheers of the support crew.
I checked in with a tired-looking little girl, got my finishers pin, and collected my coveted jersey – woohooo!! In contrast to the very slow ascent, getting from the top of the pass back to Clovis took only 5hrs 13min. The staff had a TV set up playing the day’s TdF stage, so I got to see how it turned out, and they even went out and got some pizza for us stragglers when their food supplies ran low. As I relished having finished the ride, a few more riders pulled in. One of them looked decidedly ill and just sat against the wall, motionless and speechless. Some staffers quickly noticed his condition and summoned paramedics to rehydrate him. After eating a little pizza and talking to folks, I went back to my hotel and crashed out hard.
This was probably the hardest ride I’ve done to date, definitely much harder than the Death Ride (less climbing, but more distance, and waaaaay steeper grades) and harder than, say, the Knoxville double. Although the memory of the suffering may well fade with time, as of now, I don’t know that I’ll do this ride again! The Fresno cyclists do an absolutely first-rate job supporting this ride, what with the valet bike parking, ice water everywhere, proper ultra fuels/pills and snacky foods, sodas, abundant SAG, etc. Other than the morning stretch from Pine Ridge to Shaver on Hwy 168, the route was beautiful and lightly trafficked. If you want a challenge, this surely is one!
“That about sums up that fateful day
When conditions near Fresno made all of us pay
You’d think having done it, I’d be a bit wiser,
But I’ll return next year for the Climb to Kaiser!”
– Found on Google groups search for “climb to kaiser”