Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Epic Commute - Mt. Ham Way

May is National Bike Month, and in the San Francisco Bay Area, May 12 is Bike To Work Day.  Of course, if I had my way, every day would be Bike To Work Day.  But if nothing else, the current arrangement gives us a good excuse to plan special events, like the one I participated in on Wednesday, May 11, where 8 of us got up at an ungodly hour, took a ridiculously early train out of the City, and rode our bikes 100 miles to work.

Murph was the instigator this year.  He had done it the previous year with Crosby and Ammon, and what with the Tour of California's Stage 4 going from Livermore to San Jose, it was impossible to resist.

So, there we were: Murph, Space, Brooks, Beckett, James, Bret, Xton, and me, arriving at the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station at 5:53am.  We clipped in and rolled out... only to realize we'd gone the wrong way out of the BART parking lot.  This is what happens when you haven't had your coffee yet.  Our navigational snafu corrected, we rolled through the quiet morning streets of Pleasanton in search of starch and caffeine.

After our quick fuel stop, we headed east towards Livermore, reaching the junction of Tesla Rd. and Mines Rd. at about 7:15am.  We turned south on Mines and set our pace.  We knew we had a long way to go with some good climbing ahead of us, so we decided to keep it to Zone 2.  Xton did a great job of setting the pace, and we all stayed together though the first Mines climb.

We continued to roll along at a brisk but measured pace until the second bump on Mines.  At this point, our group got separated a bit.  Brooks and Xton were crushing it up front, followed by Space, Beckett, Bret, and me more-or-less riding together about 50 yards back.  As we crested the bump for the rollers that followed, Murph and James failed to latch on and got dropped.  At some point, Bret dropped off, too, because the forward and backward photos I took along Mines show only Xton, Space, Brooks, and Beckett.

We knew there was a regroup at the Junction Cafe, so on we went.  For those of you who haven't been out there before, let me just say that the scenery on Mines Rd. is just amazing.  Rocky hills, canyons, streams (that occasionally flow across the road!), live oaks, pine, ranches, wildlife... it's just a spectacular California landscape that makes riding a bike a real treat.  Plus there's pretty much zero traffic (of course, there's no cell signal, either).

The lead group of 5 arrived at the Junction Cafe right around 9:00am.  This is pretty much the only thing around for miles, at the Junction of Mines Rd., San Antonio Valley Rd. (which continues south to Mt. Hamilton), and Del Puerto Canyon Rd. (which goes east to Patterson).  Unfortunately, the cafe is closed at this time of day, but luckily there is a porta-pottie and a large tank of potable water available, so we were able to take care of those basic human needs.  The regroup provided us with an opportunity to shed our arm and knee warmers and snap a few photos before continuing south.

There's a short climb on San Antonio Valley Rd. before crossing Isabella Creek, which is essentially the start of the Mt. Hamilton back-side climb.  We pulled off there for a regroup, another photo op, and to slather on sunscreen.  There was a little excitement as James quite nearly took a leak on a small rattlesnake sleeping near a fencepost.  But disaster was averted, an alternate bio break location found, and we made our final preparations for the suffering that lied ahead.

The Mt. Hamilton back-side climb is about 4.5 miles at an average of 8.5%.  It's a pretty steady grade that's just a little bit less (maybe 8.3%), with the occasional steeper pitch (like in the switchbacks, or for short straight sections).  So the key for this climb is to just find your rhythm, focus on breathing, and stay relaxed.  Xton once again did a great job of setting the pace, and 4 of us (Xton, Brooks, Beckett, and I) climbed together at a steady ~7.6 mph.  Pretty sure everybody was in their lowest gear (34x27 for me), and let me tell you, I am glad I had swapped out the 12-25!  Brooks was the hardman of the bunch, turning 39x25.

Once nice feature of the Mt. Hamilton back-side climb is the mile markers; they count down to 0 at the summit!  This provides a nice progress indicator.  Beckett scored a free effort-mile by glancing down to see "2" when he was expecting a "3".  At the "1" marker, it levels off a little.  Xton took this opportunity to let 'er rip and dropped us.  But it's kind of evil ... just about when you think "aaaah, sweet, sweet recovery", the road pitches up to 11-ish% for another 1/3 of a mile or so.  But for Beckett, the gauntlet had been thrown, and he had a oh-no-you-di'nt momemt - off he went after Xton.  Brooks kept his steady pace, because he is apparently incapable of showing pain.  I, on the other hand, was suffering serious beyond-LT delirium, fearing that I was going to yak the last Gu I ate 45 minutes ago all over the nice scenery.  It was at this point that I started to talk to myself.  It went a little something like this:
  • (Inside voice) "Holy f***, this is hard."
  • (Inside voice) "I wonder if there's any shame in unclipping and walking the last few hundred yards..."
  • (Inside voice) "WTF am I thinking??!"
  • (Yelling at the road) "DON'T STOP NOW, JASON!  MAN UP!  GO!  STUPID!  F***ING!  LEGS!"
I need to try this yelling at the road technique more often, because all of the sudden the grade leveled off and the urge to vomit all over my front wheel subsided.  Yay, I made it!  Brooks was about 20 yards ahead of me, and once I caught up to him I heard some evidence that he is indeed human as he uttered "Wow, that was hard!"

Turns out the effort was good enough to get the 4 of us on the Strava top-10 leaderboard for the climb (Xton 33:17, Beckett 34:00, Brooks 34:06, me 34:11).  Knowing it wouldn't last, I took a screenshot.

We took a nice rest at the top, invoking the Secret Code Of The Out Of Order Coke Machine to get some sugar while we waited for our pals.  Once we were all at the top, we snapped a few photos, stretched a little, and otherwise got ready for the descent.

The descent down the front side of Mt. Hamilton is long (19 miles!) and technical (365 turns, as legend has it), with 2 intermediate climbs.  The pavement at the very top is kind of crappy -- rough, some potholes, and the occasional patch of scattered gravel.  I started the descent first, with Brooks on my wheel.  At the first little bump, Brooks pulled along side and we switched positions through the second bump.  For the bottom third of the descent or so, the pavement is smooth and new-ish (must have something to do with the expensive houses); knowing that I like to descend, Brooks waved at me to pass him, which I did, shifting up to 50x12 and turning the cranks as hard as I could.  Let me tell you what, I had a BLAST.  At one point a car came up behind me.  Of course there was not much of a shoulder, so I was just taking the lane.  But the car would have never been able to pass me anyway, as I could take the corners much faster than he could.  Once I got to the bottom and crossed over to the regroup spot at the park, I looked back and the driver gave me a friendly wave, which I gladly returned.

We waited at the bottom for everyone else... we knew that Bret was taking it easy, as he was riding a dollar-bill-booted-tire after getting a sidewall blow-out on the way up the back-side.  After we all arrived at the bottom, Bret parted ways with us as he needed to catch a train back to the City.  The rest of us were headed to lunch.  After a brief navigational snafu that resulted in a couple hundred extra feed of climbing, we rode some junk miles through San Jose and Milpitas, making our way to Alviso for our reward: Mexican food at the amazing Maria Elena's.

After gobbling a metric ton of salty chips and our respective giant burritos, we got back on the road to head to our destinations: Beckett, Brooks, and Space to Mountain View, Murph and James to Santa Clara, Xton and me to Cupertino.

All told, 101 miles and a smidgeon over 7000 feet of climbing.  An awesome day on the bike, and I even made a 3:00pm meeting!

If you want to get an idea of how awesome this ride was, check out the Rapha Continental video of AToC Stage 4.  Can't wait to do it again next year!


  1. Absolutley AweStruck... MegaKudos and chapeaus all around.

  2. Sounds like you guys had a great time! One thing, however, I'm nearly positive that the markers on Hamilton are in KM, not miles. Of course, I started that climb at mile 130-something of 206, so I might have been a bit delirious at that point :).