“Sitting-in” behind two other riders with whom I’ve been trading “pulls” with for several hours on this cool, peaceful February morning, I could see that the predicted scattered showers would not materialize. I was a bit hesitant to join this 105 mile ride from Sacramento to Santa Rosa, and although the elevation chart indicated 40+ miles of flat spinning preceeding some six thousand vertical feet of climbing over the remaining miles, my trepidation was not related to environmental conditions, the distance or climbing.
What worried me was the pace. My riding partners, Scott McKinney and Curtis Taylor, were accomplished double-century riders and each were winners of the California Triple Crown. While both are very stong riders over distance, Curtis completed his double-century season by placing 6th in the state – and Scott not so far behind him in those same rankings.
The Tour of California, America’s premiere ProTour bicycle race, a one week event, was coming through Santa Rosa and Sacramento and we intended to see as much of it in person as possible. For us that meant riding to Santa Rosa on Sunday, watching the Stage 1 finish (Sausalito to Santa Rosa) in downtown Santa Rosa on Monday, and then riding out ahead of the pro cyclists on Tuesday to catch the final King of the Mountain (KOM) sprint line located at the top of “Cardiac hill”.
Our ride began in the urban area that skirts the north side of downtown Sacramento; our course continuing through Old Town, across the Tower Bridge, through West Sacramento and across the causeway that links this metropolitan area to the more rural community of Davis.
We rode through lightly congested traffic, across cobblestones, over bridges and causeways and into pastoral farmland; passing feral cats, water fowl, the occasional dog, and an abundance of farm animals. Presently, we were riding along Putah Creek, taking in the cattails on the right, and a walnut grove on the left.
Before the day’s end we would enjoy an even greater variety of scenery whose beauty is a result of the geography and micro climates that dictate the contour of the land and the vegetation it supports. As the day progressed, we rode westward passing lakes and dams, climbing ridges and mountains, navigating the vineyards of the world renowned Napa Valley, and transitioning into high-canopied wooded areas with their underlying flora and fauna.
It was a wonderful place to be, almost unexpected but certainly appreciated.
Eventually we gained the Silverado Trail and worked our way north to St. Helena, a busy if not beautiful town fit perfectly within the valley bordered by the mountains we had just descended, and those we were about to climb.
As we pedaled toward Spring Mountain road it was Scott who commented that he used to ride the very same road decades before in his high school days. He was living not far up the road in Angwin, Ca and he included this climb on his training rides from time-to-time.
When asked about the difficulty of the climb, all he could remember was that is was either not nearly as troublesome as people make it out to be, or much more painful than could ever be described with words; not really sure which though – said with a dopy, quizzical look upon his face.
Mile 80 had just gone under our wheels as Spring Mountain Road began to rise up from under us. “Not too bad”, was my comment as we ascended the first few miles.
There was a smattering of vehicles descending in the opposite direction and no words were passed between the three of us when we began to smell the very heavy odor of overheated brakes. A few minutes later that same smell would come wafting up off my legs in the form of lactic acid burning through my quadriceps.
The road pitched up sharply to what I believe we later determined was an average of 8% grade for the next 5.5 miles. There were no areas of relief where the road eased up; just a long, steep and relentless climb.
At first, I would approach each corner expecting a flat spot around the other side where I could get a little relief, but after some twenty or more corners, I learned to give up that way of thinking. I was still in touch with Scott, and to some degree Curtis, when a flock of turkeys buzzed over the road across our bow. There must have been thirty of them and the sight of it was surreal; my mind kept attempting to re-image them into geese, but their lack of grace in flight continued in denial of this possibility.
By now Curtis was way up the road, in Algeria, or Nicaragua, or somewhere else really far away. Scott had been riding at my pace for a few minutes, then realizing he was riding at my pace for a few minutes he engaged the big pistons, turned up the revolutions per minute and rode off for Algeria, or Nicaragua, or somewhere else really far away.
So I was left alone to make my climb. I was struggling and pedaling with great difficulty; I had fallen behind in my hydration and was now about the pay a costly price. My legs were burning and I could still smell the heavy odor of car brakes in the air, so I knew it was still a long way to the top of the climb.
I was creeping along at something like 3.5 miles per hour when I discovered, much to my dismay, that it was a burn day. Some guy was out in his field with seven or eight burn piles, adding brush and diesel toxicity to the overheated brakes “aromatherapy” I was receiving as a reward for climbing this beast of a hill.
The burn piles were set close to the road and the cloud of smoke they produced blocked the road like the great wall of China; repelling the Mongols and preventing them from entering the land.
Like little bits of stardust dancing in the air, swirling, scattering, and regrouping again, little lights would appear before my eyes, perform their artistic maneuvers and then disappear into the ether. I marveled at this delightful display for a moment or two: they were teasing me, flitting and darting, twirling and twinkling.
My mouth was agape; I put a single finger nail against my front tooth and giggled like a little girl. Then I reached out to capture a handful of the magical stardust only to learn that: there was no stardust, my lungs were broke, my legs were wrecked, my eyes were burning, my brain was fried, and I was few pints low on hydration.
I was contemplating whether or not to stop, regroup and restart, but decided against it. I pushed onward and upward, I absorbed the punishment and eventually reached the summit.
Curtis arrived at the summit ten minutes ahead of me, and Scott five. The long awaited, deserved and desired rest at the summit lasted, for me, about a minute; just long enough for Curtis and Scott to gain their feet, strap on their helmets and start turning pedals. It was cold out and after a long sweaty climb it isn’t good to sit around for too long waiting for the giggly little girl with asbestos breathe to arrive.
How slow was my ascent? To put it into perspective, of the five hours, fifty-eight minutes and twenty-six seconds of ride time from Sacramento to Santa Rosa, I spent fifty of those minutes on this single climb.
I concur with Scott, who has proffered the following: that cyclists “do”. This maxim is evident in the long held tradition of amateur cyclists riding the course ahead of their professional counterparts. In this, we test ourselves, and later, marvel at the chasm of ability that separates us from them. When we compare the results of our efforts to theirs our admiration for them grows, as does our respect for the sport.