Sunday, July 19, 2009
Pensinsula Death Ride
This is training ride I put together last year when I was preparing for the Tour of the California Alps, aka the Death Ride. Since I missed the 2009 ride, I decided to do the training ride this weekend as Jenny had to work Saturday. I needed a long ride, as I haven't done one since the Terrible Two in June and the Mt. Tam double century is in two weeks. They say you lose your endurance in a couple of weeks.
This is a pretty tough ride that I built up to last year one pass at a time. In the end, after doing the real Death Ride, I decided it was every bit as hard. While it doesn't have the altitude component, the climbs are steeper on average and all the descents are technical. In the end its 15600 feet of climbing and 141 miles from our house in Palo Alto. It would be about 135/15500 if you started at the park and ride at 280/Page Mill. This is not a ride for people who don't like climbing. I estimate that there is about 5 miles of actual flat road on the entire ride.
I started at 6:30, it was nice and cool, but no need for a jacket or leg warmers. While the forecast was for temps to top out in the upper 80's, I carried my lightweight Pearl Izumi Oyster jacket because I never go to the coast without a jacket as the weather is so unpredictable over there.
The ride climbs six passes; a pass being defined as climbing to Skyline Boulevard on the ridge. The first and last passes are the toughest. As you might guess, the first climb is Page Mill. This is a long climb, about 10 miles from the 280 junction. It's not the perfect climb because it actually has some short descents on the way, but it makes up for those with some steep grades. After a short warm up on easy grades, it kicks up sharply and hairpins its way up to Foothills park. Because of that, there's often more traffic on this section, but not at 7am! Immediately after Foothill the grade picks up sharply to just beyond the junction with Moody Rd. A bit of relief then steady grade until a down section before the toughest section, one particularly steep hairpin, and then steady 10% or more, the steepest part of which is also exposed to the full sun. After that it's kind of mixed but with a couple of steep pitches, one 16% that doesn't seem like it's much when you start, and then the famous "wall" which my Garmin 305 claimed 20% after yet another short descent. I think this is where the San Andreas goes through as it's just before the Los Trancos open space reserve with it's Earthquake Trail. One more descent to where the dirt road that Alpine Road becomes joins in, and a final easy climb in a nice shaded section to the junction with Skyline. As I'm climbing I realize there is a temperature inversion as its getting warmer as I get higher.
At Skyline, you are not actually at the highest point. The right turn on Skyline climbs higher as does Alpine to the west. Only the left turn on Skyline descends but that is short lived as the road eventually climbs to 2600' at Saratoga gap. The ride continues west on Alpine, climbing to 2400' at the entrance to the Russian ridge open space preserve, where they seem to have had a controlled burn recently. The descent on Alpine is probably the most technical of the whole ride, in part because it is often foggy, and the road can be wet. But not today, this is probably as good as it gets, and the first time this year that I have not donned my jacket. There's a nice open section to start, but plenty of bends, until you reach a short flat section with great views to the south, then more bends down to a fork in the road with one branch dead ending at Portola State Park. Alpine continues, now in the shade and narrower, on and on until a sharp hairpin marks the descent into the canyon and more hairpins. This is where the temperature often takes a sharp dive as the canyon sees very little sun even in midsummer and today is no exception. I have been seriously cold here in the past but today it's just bearable without the jacket. The 15mph sign marks the end of the steep stuff and it's a mile or so alongside the stream and past some pretty big redwoods to the junction with the road from Old La Honda to Pescadero. We'll be taking that later but for now we turn right, meeting highway 84 and into Old La Honda.
There's a running race to the coast today and a small crowd of people hanging out getting ready. I continue up 84 to the junction with Old La Honda Rd and take that back to Skyline. Old La Honda is one of those roads which you can see snaking up ahead of you on the hillside and when you get to that section you have great views to coast and, of course, the lower section of the road you just came up. Eventually you enter the redwood forest again where the road gets very narrow. Not many cars come this way, but I've had a few close shaves with bikes on the wrong side of the road. There is a short wall of 16% to reach Skyline where there is inevitably a group of riders looking tired after having climbed the east side. The pass is in a dip, so it's a short climb out either way. I go left to 1780' and then it's a long downhill to Skylonda where highway 84 crosses. Turning left I head back down 84 to Old La Honda, which starts off at a very gradual grade but picks up later. There's no bike lane and the first section is endlessly twisty and cars heading to the beach often back up waiting to pass. No cars at this time of the morning, thankfully. There's a market at Old La Honda which is good for picking up extra fluids but its been closed the last few times I've been down. A casualty of the recession perhaps. Since its a long way to the next source, I beg some water from the bar. The runners have left on their way to the beach by now.
Then its back up Alpine, which is about a 45 min climb from the 15mph marker for me, to the Skyline ridge at 2400'. There's lots of 10%+ grade on the lower sections of Alpine and if its hot, the top section, which is 7-9%, feels as bad because its exposed to the sun. Down 200' to Skyline then left and back up 200' to the summit just before the big parking area at the Vista point where all the bay is spread before you. Unfortunately today, the smog in the valley is the most obvious component of the view. It's mostly downhill with a few rollers from here, past Windy Hill, back to the junction with Old La Honda. The ride continues on to Skylonda, so covering this section of road twice and then down 84 east. This is a fun descent, not usually too many cars and it's twisty enough that except for the odd boy racer, you can keep ahead of the cars. At the base of the hill, the ride peels off on a sharp right turn along Portola Rd, to meet up with Portola Valley Rd, where we turn right and head for the base of the climb up Old La Honda. Portola Valley Rd is part of the famous "loop" ride which is very popular.
It's getting hot already and this is pass number four, 6000' and four hours into the ride. OLH is a steady climb, no crazy grades just a consistent 7-9%. I've done it faster, even when tired, but today it takes me 30 minutes. At the top, we retrace the short trip to Skylonda for the third time. In the past I've gone back down 84 again to Woodside for lunch but this time I'm trying a variation that continues along Skyline to Kings Mountain and descends that to Woodside. It's more climbing, back up to 2350', but that's the point! Unfortunately, I'm getting low on fluids so it's a bit of a grind. Fun descent on Kings, especially the smooth road surface after Huddart park.
Woodside is the lunch stop, with 72 miles and 8000' covered so far. Robert's grocery has the basics and across the street is the bakery for special goodies and caffine shots. I usually do both. As it happens I run into some old friends outside Roberts from my soccer coaching days. In keeping with the spirit of the ride I'm wearing my 2008 Death Ride kit and they spot this and ask if I did it this year. No, unfortunately, but they did it on their brand new Co-motion tandem which has one of these new fangled Gates carbon belts instead of the conventional timing chain. We chat about the Death Ride and riding in general and I am humbled to learn that they can (both) climb Old La Honda in 22min on their singles and the same time on the tandem! Still the stoker was a tri-athlete in her younger days and they appear to have BMIs in the low teens.
I end up spending about half an hour longer than I had intended to but, heck meeting people is half the fun. One reason for not taking too long for lunch is that it is hard to get going again. There's a short warm up en route to the base of Kings which then climbs steeply. Kings is one of those climbs that is easy to break into segments, which is all part of the mental aspect of climbing. Kings has three, the first is twisty and steep up to the Huddart Park entrance. Then the road surface deteriorates and its a consistent medium grade to a dead straight wide and exposed section that seems out of place with the rest of the road, then steep again to Skyline ending in a narrow tunnel of redwoods at 2100'. Dead opposite is Tunitas Creek which we'll be coming up toward the end of the ride, but for now we turn left and head up Skyline, retracing the inbound route to lunch. This involves just a short climb and then a nice long descent to Skylonda, followed by a descent down 84, for the second time, to Old La Honda and the road to Pescadero. This time we stay right at the junction with Alpine Rd and head up Hoskins Grade. This is a fairly short 700' climb through the redwoods but for some reason it always seems longer than I expect. You know you are close when you see the "Horse Camp 1000 feet" sign. The problem is that whoever placed the sign was measurement challenged, as it's more like 1000 yards. The summit tops out at 1100' and then there is a great descent with several fun hairpins and rollers into Loma Mar. It's really a very pleasant ride at this point for several miles until the headwinds from the coast start to pick up. It was on this stretch on my first organized ride, the Tour de Cure in 2007, that I followed a guy wearing a Triple Crown jersey, with the "200 miles in one day" logo. I remember thinking that that was, first, impossible and, second, nuts, but now I'm doing them! I was wrong on the first but right on the second.
The headwind on the way into Pescadero typically gets worse but is alleviated eventually by one of those few stretches of flat road. The deli and grocery store at Pescadero is terrific, with a real old time feel about it, but sporting a brick pizza oven, inside seating and an outside beer garden, sometimes with live music. Ironically I run into another old friend from the soccer era, which adds a bit more time. I know pretty much exactly how long its going to take to get back from here and I really want to leave by 4pm, which I manage by the skin of my teeth.
The route follows Stage Rd through San Gregorio, where it crosses 84, and then up to the junction with 1. There are three small climbs and descents of about 300-400' each on the way and, despite the warm weather inland, the fog is blowing in pretty hard and I almost put on the jacket. If it's sunny there are some great view of the ocean along the way, but not today. At the junction with 84 is the (very small) village of San Gregorio, but which also has a very cool store that is popular with bikers (with and without engines). I don't usually stop having just fueled up at Pescadero. This is one of many bailout points on this ride and I have taken it in the past. A right turn on 84 will take you all the way back to Skylonda at a fairly leisurely grade, unlike Tunitas Creek where we are headed next. From the junction with 1 it's a fast descent down to the bridge over Tunitas Creek and then a right turn. Now we are traveling on the same road as the Amgen Tour of California and we have a lot to thank them for as, no doubt to avoid embarrassment (and possibly lawsuits) the steep midsection of the road was paved just before the tour last February. I once made the mistake of descending Tunitas in it's old condition and was absolutely shaken to bits by the end, as the surface was more pothole than tarmac. It's 10 miles from the coast to the summit, with a fairly long lead in. Then as the canyon closes in, it gets dark, usually so much so that I take my sunglasses off, and then it gets steep, 10-12%. There are three hairpins that delimit this section. The surface is now mostly excellent except that, curiously, they left one section of about 1/4 mile in its original condition, perhaps just as a reminder of how bad it used to be. At the second hairpin there is a "slow" sign, for no apparent reason, perhaps left from the construction. I am certainly in obedience! Some wag has also painted "N miles to go" on the surface at 5, 4 and 3 miles". The steep section eventually ends, indeed it almost looks like the summit, but the cruel trick is that you are still three miles from the end. The road deteriorates again, the pros were probably reminded of Belgium cobblestones on this section, and three miles at 3-5% grade never seemed so long. It's all S-shaped and you keep rounding a bend thinking, this must be it, only to see the road snake the other way again. Eventually when you do reach Skyline, it's almost an anti-climax as the grade drops to zero and you almost overshoot it.
This is another bail-out point. Just head on down Kings and back. But for the full credit you must climb back along Skyline through Skylonda to Old La Honda and descend that. If you wanted to get 150+ miles you could go left all the way to 92 and then back along Canada Rd to Woodside. Either way, the route ends up on Portola Valley Rd with the easy 1-2% grade up to the junction with Alpine, being careful to watch for the local sheriff at the stop signs! Then down Alpine, up the short hill on Arastradero, past the open space parking area and down to the park and ride at Page Mill. I have one more short hill on Arastradero to get down to the flatlands of Palo Alto. Total ride time was 13:05, on-bike time was 11:16, for 141 miles and 15600' of climbing. Definitely a Death Ride!