Mt. Tam Double: Bill is a Contestant on “Beat the Clock”

It sure is nice to be able to get out of bed, hop in the car, and drive to the start of a bicycling event. Also, there is just about nothing nicer than cycling in Marin and Sonoma Counties. For that reason alone, the Mt. Tam Double Century is always a pleasure. This year’s edition had some wrinkles but was ultimately a good time. If you want to see the photos and skip the commentary, click here or watch the slideshow below.

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The Marin Cyclists put on the Mt. Tam Double as a part of a cornucopia of ride options associated with their Marin Century. There is a ride for every flavor of rider: kids on Big Wheels to hard-core ultra-distance cyclists. The rides criss-cross each other throughout northern Marin and southern Sonoma counties. The Mt. Tam Double hits just about everything that everyone else rides (with a few extras thrown in for good measure). Riders get to climb Mt. Tamalpais after riding up Fairfax-Bolinas Road (aka Bofax), zoom down to the coast and then head north to Pt. Reyes Station on Highway 1, head inland to Petaluma and then back toward the coast to Valley Ford for lunch. After lunch, the riders continue north to the brutal Coleman Valley Road for a very tough climb over the first set of mountains in the coastal range. After heading back south, riders only face one real challenge: climbing the “harder” side of the Marshall Wall. After that, it is just rollers with a couple of bumps back to the start (although those bumps seem a lot bigger after 185 miles!).

The views on this ride are stunning. From the ridge on Mt. Tam, one can see the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco Bay, and the gleaming buildings in SF in the distance, all while riding just above the redwoods. While riding up Highway 1, riders see the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Stinson Beach, and Tomales Bay. From Bay Hill Road (north of Valley Ford), you get a terrific view of Bodega Bay. Before climbing Coleman Valley Road, you ride next to the ocean and a long, sandy beach. And you see more cows than can be counted, happily munching on the green grass of the coastal hills and emitting methane.

The ride only has one intermediate time cutoff: you have to leave lunch by 2:30 pm. If you don’t make this time cut, you get sent back south toward the finish line without having the “pleasure” of riding Coleman Valley Road or the Marshall Wall. This year, the ride organizers tossed a bit of a wrench into the works: they added about 10 miles of riding before the time cut at lunch. Thus, prior to the ride there was a great deal of wringing of hands and grousing by riders in the event about making the time cut. Being one of the slower riders on this ride, I was worried. As a result, I knew that I had to get rolling at 4 am and hoped for no mechanicals before lunch.

I got about 5 hours of sleep before having to get up and drive to the start. After checking in with the crack Marin Cyclist team (Craig, Dirk, and Phyllis) at the ride start, I queued up with about 30 other riders for the 4 am mass start. At the appointed time, we rolled off in the dark, headlights and taillights blazing.

To get to the country roads, we rode through Terra Linda, obeying stop signs and traffic signals. At Lucas Valley Road, we turned left toward the ocean. I managed to miss the light at this corner and, as a result, when I turned  I was a little behind the main pack. Not 50 yards after turning the corner, I heard the sound that cyclists hate: “HISSSSSSSSS”. Flat tire!

This was NOT a part of the plan. Here I was, no more than 4 miles from the start and I had to change a tube in the dark. It was unlikely that any SAG vehicles would be coming by, so it was all on me to get the thing repaired. After a few choice words, I took out the stuff and got at it. However, as I pumped up the spare tube a bit, I realized that the spare had a hole in it and wouldn’t hold air! This was REALLY not part of the plan. OK, pull out the second tube, pump it up (it held air), get the tube in the tire, the tire back on the bike, check to make sure you aren’t leaving anything on the side of the road, and get going. All the time that I am screwing around with the flat, groups of riders were rolling past (generally asking if I needed help).

For those that don’t ride road bikes, it is very critical to find the source of the flat, lest you put in the new tube and get another flat right away…since I didn’t have any more tubes, I took great pains to make sure that I got the nasty little wire out of the tire before putting everything back together. As a result, it took me about 30 minutes to get back on the road. Needless to say, losing 30 minutes right out of the chute had me worried about the time cut at Valley Ford.

Because of the frame geometry of my bike, I use a mini-pump (there isn’t any way to mount a frame pump). Unfortunately, this pump only seems to be able to put about 80 psi in the tube after about 400 strokes, so I took off with low tire pressure, knowing that I could pump the tire up at the first rest stop. Riding with low tire pressure is risky: if you hit a bump or hole in the road, you can pinch your tube and get yet another flat. So, I had to take it easy on the descent down Nicasio Valley Road to Sir Francis Drake Blvd. and down White’s Hill into Fairfax. This was too bad, since I was riding with Bruce for a while and having a very nice chat.

As I climbed up Bofax toward the Pine Mountain checkpoint, I developed a little mental to-do list for the upcoming stop: (1) Don’t take too much time. (2) Pump up the tire. (3) Find a spare tube or two. (4) Get some water and food for the next section of the ride. (5) Shed some clothes for the climbing ahead. I found a floor pump and got the tire up to the proper pressure (it has been at about 80 psi) but the rest stop workers didn’t have any spare tubes, which made me really nervous about continuing. Fortunately, Lee Mitchell, SAG driver extraordinary, drove in as I was getting ready to leave and he had spare tubes in the fabulous BikeVan. It was a slower stop than I had hoped for but I checked everything off the list and got riding.

Bofax is just an amazing road. After ascending out of Fairfax, it climbs up and then dips down in Marin Metropolitan Water District land, ultimately crossing the dam that forms Alpine Lake. After that, you climb through the redwoods up to the ridge. The climbing after crossing the dam is not killer steep but it does get the heartrate going. Since I was well behind my crew of early risers, this was the point in the ride where I was starting to get passed by the quick riders that had started at 5 am. No worries…just keep climbing.

After turning left onto Ridgecrest Blvd., the fun began. The fog was rolling over the ridge, making the trees drip (i.e., rain). The road was soaked. However, when you looked down and to the east, it was sunny and clear. Every once in a while, the fog would thin a bit and let the sun peek through a bit, causing a number of riders to stop to take photos or to just gawk.

Ridgecrest is a set of rollers that generally increase in elevation. Eventually, we popped out of the marine layer and saw the bright sun, above a thick blanket of fog, which was penetrated by some peaks further to the south. The road rolls through green hills with incredible sightlines. Perhaps this is why numerous car companies use this road as the setting for their commercials.

At the end of Ridgecrest, you turn left toward the summit of Mt. Tam, which is the highest point of the ride. The climbing itself isn’t too tough but given the sun and warm temperatures, I had planned to keep my heartrate down, knowing that there was still a lot of miles to go. As I started to climb, I saw Alfie and Lisa (a couple of my 4 am cronies) speeding down the hill. This gave me a kick in the butt…I needed to pick up the pace or I was at risk of getting a DNF (did not finish).

As I struggled up the last kicker to the checkpoint at the summit, I knew that there would be no hanging out up there. Get checked in and get a move on down to the next checkpoint by Muir Beach. The descent to Muir Beach is most excellent. The roads were basically empty (albeit a little wet). Thus, it was possible to descend at a pretty good clip (although there were others that went much faster than me…I like to descend but do not like road rash). After getting off of Panoramic Road and past Muir Woods, I rolled into the next rest stop.

The mood here was very upbeat. The fast riders were arriving after the great descent. The volunteers were happy to see us and ready to help. The dining options were fine. The lines at the toilets were kind of long but not too bad. “Top off the food and drinks,” as Paul Sherwen says, and get on the road.

In 2008, I got a flat just after this rest stop and knew that if I got another one, the ride would be over, so as I climbed out of Muir Beach on Highway 1, I was extra careful about holes in the road and glass. As I reached the top of the first climb, I got a good view to the north. Although it was overcast, the wind and clear air made the coastal hills beautiful. The coastal road is far from flat and can give the rider a little bit of a challenge as you ride north, since you dip down to cross the creeks and then have to climb back out. Nonetheless, the riding into Stinson Beach went quickly.

From Stinson north to Pt. Reyes Station, one stays on Highway 1 and basically rides along the Bolinas Lagoon (behind Sea Drift), climbs over the hill past Dog Town, and then rides rollers and flats to the next rest stop. The climbing shouldn’t be too hard but for some reason, the section out of Bolinas over Dog Town always seems like a struggle. Once over that, it was a quick zip into the rest stop at Pt. Reyes Station.

I cannot exactly say why, but it seemed to take forever to get out of the rest stop at Pt. Reyes Station. The volunteers didn’t have any Gatorade out, which meant he had to find some. The lines to the toilets were a little long but not too bad. The food was tasty, so maybe I hung out for a while. Who knows? It just took me way too long to get going.

The astute reader may be sensing a pattern in this narrative. Each rest stop, I am getting more and more nervous about the time. As I pulled out of Pt. Reyes Station, I thought I was in real trouble. Why? The leg from Pt. Reyes Station to Petaluma follows the route used by the San Francisco Randonneurs for a number of their brevets, so I knew that it went in a northwesterly direction with some climbs not nothing too tough. The problem was the wind out of the west that was starting to pick up. It was the next leg (out of Petaluma to Valley Ford) that had me worried, since it is almost due west (i.e., straight into the stiffening wind).  As a result, I really tried to push the pace on this section and started to pick up a couple of the riders that had left in the 4 am crowd.

Knowing that time was tight, I flew through the Petaluma checkpoint, quickly grabbing food and drink and then heading out for Valley Ford.

Even though I have ridden in this area for many years, I had never actually ridden from Petaluma to Valley Ford. In the past, the Mt. Tam Double route went from Valley Ford to Petaluma (as you were heading south toward the finish) but the ride organizers decided to tweak the course and send us in the opposite direction today. As I climbed out of Petaluma, I started chatting with Mark, who it turns out is a friend of Jack’s (another of the double century/brevet riders from Grizzly Peak Cyclists). Mark said that he was looking forward to the next section of the ride, since it went through Chileno Valley, which is very lovely. I agreed about the scenery but noted that it was 12:20 pm and we had to be in and out of the next rest stop (which was 25 miles away) by 2:30 pm and, by the way, there was going to be a howling headwind. Mark hadn’t caught this fact on the route sheet, so my comment must have got his attention because he immediately suggested that we team up and ride together. Mark was a great “team time trial” partner. He recognized that there is no reason to pull on the front for 10 minutes at a stretch (he suggested 1 minute pulls) and that when you got on the front you shouldn’t immediately drop your partner (he checked his mirror to make sure I was hanging on). We made great time along Chileno Valley, catching a couple that had been riding a bit ahead of me on Highway 1. Unfortunately, when we slotted in behind them and asked if they wanted to work together, the man in the lead put the hammer down, leaving us (and his riding partner) in the dust. Huh? After we would ride together and catch the dude, he would sprint off the front again, leaving his partner behind to get pulled by us. What was this guy thinking???

All of this foolishness took its toll on me and I finally just dropped off, even though we were still heading into a the wind. Mark continued on and rode with the couple for a bit but they ultimately split apart, too. As they rode off, I looked at my watch. It was a bit before 2 pm and I had about 6 miles to go to the rest stop. I started developing a strategy: ride in, grab some food, and then pull out of the rest stop and eat up the road. If necessary, get some drinks at the market in Valley Ford. Just do not get DQed.

It turns out that the last 6 miles went very fast (except for that one nasty hill right after turning north) because of the great tailwind, which blew me all the way to Valley Ford. I hit the checkpoint at 2:15. Time to spare! I grabbed a burrito, sat a bit, and even got to use the toilet and get some drinks.  The volunteers (a group of high school mountain bike racers) gave everyone plenty of warning about the impending cutoff time but, realistically, I am not sure how many riders missed the time cut, since I was passed later in the ride by a number of riders that were coming into the checkpoint as I was leaving.

Having (1) busted my tail to make it to Valley Ford and (2) wolfed down a chicken burrito for lunch , I decided to take it easy over the next leg (or, as Amy says, I was riding at a “digestive pace”). There are a few very large rollers between Valley Ford and Bay Hill Road, which I just crawled up. After turning onto Bay Hill Road (which loops around the town of Bodega Bay), I continued my snail’s pace up to the top of the ridge. Since I was in no hurry, I took in the scenery. The hills were just gleaming. The views down to Bodega Bay were pretty spectacular. The place was so pretty that I didn’t even mind the rough road surface. The sightseeing continued after I turned north onto Highway 1 as I checked out the beachcombers next to the road.

All of the fun ended when I made the right-hander onto Coleman Valley Road. This thing is not as tough as Sierra Road, but it does have its moments. From the initial gradual climbing, the road points almost straight up as it makes a sharp left turn. I am not embarrassed to say that I did a bit of zig-zagging on this road. However, that was not easy since it seemed like there were more than the usual number of motos, autos, and pickup trucks out. As I reached the “King of the Mountain” spot from the Tour of California, I had a brain freeze and seemed to forget that there was still a bunch of climbing after that first intermediate summit. Looking at the route sheet, it seemed to imply that the checkpoint/rest stop was not far from the KOM. Wrong, sir! It seemed like it was another 4-5 miles of gradual and not-so-gradual climbs before I finally found the checkpoint, which came none too soon since I was completely out of water and Gatorade.

It seems that the fellow running the rest stop had decided that he didn’t want to set it up at the official location. While I commend his rugged independence and individuality, I was quietly cussing him out as I kept riding along, wondering if I had missed the stop or if he had just packed it in. When I finally found the checkpoint, it was time for serious measures, so I downed two cans of Mountain Dew. In the real world, I never drink this stuff. However, on a ride like this, it has all the key ingredients; sugar, water, and caffeine. As I rode off, I could feel the buzz starting.

The next section of the ride has a little bit of everything: riding through bucolic valleys past one-room schoolhouses, insane steep descents on bad road surfaces, and gradual downhills on the road to Valley Ford. It goes by much quicker than the road TO the checkpoint and, as a bonus, you get MORE BURRITOS when you get to the next checkpoint!

After dawdling a bit at the Valley Ford checkpoint, it was time to head south. I was sort of nervous about this section since I was almost blown off the road by crosswinds on the SF Randonneurs’ 600k brevet. However, the winds from earlier that day had pretty much died down, so I had a very nice ride past the dairy farms on the way to Tomales. Exhibiting great restraint, I decided to skip the Tomales Bakery and headed south on Highway 1 toward Marshall and the looming Marshall Wall.

Right after Tomales is one of my favorite sections of road in northern California. The road hugs an estero of Tomales Bay. The road surface is excellent, the views are great, and it is just a lot of fun to ride, especially if the wind isn’t blowing too hard. After zipping through that section, there are a bunch of small and medium-sized rollers until you hit that hard left turn onto the Marshall-Petaluma Road, which is the start of the Marshall Wall.

This was another new feature of the ride this year. In the past, the ride had ridden over the Marshall Wall from the east. Although that climb is steep and has a nasty false summit, it is not nearly as much climbing as from the west and is a much shorter climb, too. Also, since I had only ridden this direction once before, I didn’t know when the climb was going to end (and it was getting foggy and dark, so I couldn’t see the summit). This was some slow going. Richard, who was driving SAG, zipped past me a couple of times, checking to make sure that I was OK. Zig-zagging was the order of the day. I also noticed a strange scraping noise as I climbed but couldn’t figure it out, so I just kept going. After reaching the top of the hill, it was a quick zip down to the next checkpoint at Walker Ranch.

The volunteers were starting to pack the place up but were very cordial. I asked if they had any brie (which I had on this ride in 2008). They found me some as well as some crackers! All I needed was a little white wine and life would have been perfect. It was going to be dark before I reached the next checkpoint in Nicasio so I changed my glasses, turned on the lights, and put on my reflective vest. One of the volunteers was going to head back to Nicasio and offered to accompany me but I said that there wasn’t any need. He said OK but that he would be checking up on me.

The road toward Nicasio was just great fun. I didn’t remember it being as much of a descent as it was, so it took no time at all to get to Pt. Reyes-Petaluma Road. Along the way, I saw one of the strangest things I had ever seen: a cow had tried to jump over a wooden fence but didn’t have the legs to pull it off. As a result, it was stuck with its front legs on one side of the fence and its hind legs on the other side. The cow didn’t seem particularly upset by all this, which seemed strange to me. The volunteer from the ride had stopped, assessed the situation, and was going to knock on the nearest farmhouse door to inform the farmer of his cow’s predicament. I just rode slowly past the cow, gave it a thumbs up for trying, and continued down the road.

As I turned onto Pt. Reyes-Petaluma Road, I noticed the scraping noise again. It was not coincident with my pedaling, so I knew that it wasn’t in the crank or chain. It got faster when I rode faster, which meant that it had to be on one of the wheels. At this point, I did a little risk assessment. What would happen if it was something serious? What if a tire blew while descending a hill? What if I was just hearing things? Could I make it to Nicasio, where there would be lights and a place to work on the wheel? Being a wimp, I pulled into a turnout just past the Cheese Factory and checked out the situation. It quickly became obvious what was going on: the bead on my front tire was starting to pull away from the wheel, which was making the tire bulge. Well, hell! Fortunately, the volunteer, fresh from getting the cow off of the fence, pulled up. Having his headlights really helped, since it was totally dark. My brain was not working too well at that moment, so it took me a while to decide that I had to deflate the tube, re-seat the tire, and pump the thing up. Once I figured out what to do, I remembered that I only had my mini-pump, which I was not keen on using to pump up the tire. Unfortunately, the volunteer didn’t have a floor pump, but he was kind enough to finish pumping the tire up for me when my arms gave out.  What a guy! After repairs were complete (and I was sure I hadn’t left anything in the turnout), it was time to get to Nicasio, which was a quick jaunt.

In 2008, I had reached this rest stop and was told that as long as a SAG vehicle didn’t pick me up, I could finish at any time after the time cut and would get credit for the ride (only to find out that this was wrong, I had missed the official time cut but the ride director had arbitrarily extended the cut off time by 30 minutes, so I was, in fact, an official finisher!). Thus, I didn’t want to have that happen again. I checked my watch. It was about 9:15 pm when I rolled into the Nicasio rest stop and the volunteers were closing things up. The final time cut was 10:30 pm. Thus, there was plenty of time to get something to drink, pump up the tire (the rest stop had a floor pump…yes!), and make it back to the finish. Gulping down one last Mountain Dew, it was off into the darkness, heading for the finish line.

I love the last section of this ride. The climb up Lucas Valley Road is not tough. The traffic is almost non-existent. Last year I rode it with Scott but this year I was on my own. It is quiet except for my breathing, the chain rolling over the gears, and the wind in my ears. Also, since it was clear that I am going to make the finish in plenty of time (unless there is a major mechanical), I can enjoy the ride through the quiet Lucas Valley (and past Skywalker Ranch) and ease into the finish.

Which is exactly what I did. I rolled into the finish at about 10:15 pm, which was pretty good given that I had two tire issues. I checked in, got my jersey (denoting that I had finished the ride), and went to grab some food. I saw Terry as I was walking to the dinner area. She had torn it up today and had finished an hour ahead of me. Kudos to her!

As I was sitting down with my plate of food, I heard some drama unfolding. There was a rider that was about 4 miles out and he only had 10 minutes to make it to the finish. There was no way he could make it in time, meaning that he was going to get a DNF. That put a melancholy tone to the end of an otherwise good day.

Lessons learned:

  1. Check your tubes before you start a long ride.
  2. A good riding partner can make a tough section of a ride zip past.
  3. Have a plan when you approach a checkpoint and then STICK WITH THE PLAN!
  4. A little recon ride before an event can help refresh the memory.
  5. Cows can’t jump.

Ride Stats:

Miles Ridden: 194

Climbing: 14,800 feet

Total Elapsed Time:  18:15 hours

Total Rolling Time: 15:57 hours

Average Rolling Speed: 12.2 mph

A Quick One Without A Tandem

On July 25, Gail and I decided to visit Angel Island. It had been a long time since we had been there and, lo and behold, there it was a Historical Landmark! So, off we went. If you just want to see the photos, click here or just watch the slide show below.

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This is about as nice a day trip as you can find in the SF Bay Area. To get to Angel Island, you need to either hop on the Angel Island Ferry ferry from Tiburon or the Blue and Gold Fleet ferry from San Francisco, use a private boat, or swim. Unless you are swimming, you have great views of San Francisco and Marin on the way to the island.

The last time we went to Angel Island, we took Avery and Risa along. While there, we visited the U.S. Immigration Station, a National Historic Landmark, which had just re-opened for visitors. We also walked around the perimeter of the island on the walking/biking path and climbed to the highest point on the island, Mt. Livermore, too.

This time, we were not going to be nearly as ambitious. Gail and I decided that we would wear bicycle-related garb but not bring along the tandem. This would allow us to get in a nice walk. We also decided to let the day unfold without any definite plans.

After driving to Tiburon, we boarded the ferry for the short ride across Racoon Strait to Hospital Cove on Angel Island. The line for the ferry had quite a few day trippers like us. There were lots of people with bicycles, ranging from roadies wearing lycra and wielding spiffy road machines to kids on Costco specials. There were even mountain bikers, ready for an off-road adventure. When we saw how many people had their bicycles, we felt a twinge of guilt for not bringing along the tandem.

There were also people going over for some sort of camping adventure, since Angel Island is a California State Park. These folks were armed to bear, with wheeled carriers loaded to the max with coolers, sleeping bags, tents, food, and just about everything else a person might want for camping. Usually, one member of the party was designated as the mule and was responsible for hauling this load, while others shouted encouragement and insults.

After we got off the ferry, we grabbed a map and started searching for the Historical Landmark. As we walked along Hospital Cove, we noticed there were a few eateries and drinking establishments that served local fare (grilled or fresh oysters, sandwiches, and local beers). It was tempting but we knew that if we sat down and had a snack, we might not even make it to the Landmark, let alone take a hike, so we pushed on.

So what is the deal with Angel Island (California Historical Landmark # 529)? In 1775, the packet San Carlos, first known Spanish ship to enter San Francisco Bay, anchored in Hospital Cove. While here, the commander, Lieut. Juan Manual de Ayala, directed the first survey of the bay. This island, which Ayala named Isla de los Angeles, has been a Mexican rancho, a U.S. military post, a bay defense site, and a quarantine and immigration station.

After Gail and I found the Historical Landmark, we decided to walk up to the ring road and hike the perimeter of the island. The weather was cool and breezy, which made the walking just great. It was a little hazy, so views of San Francisco were not as spectacular as they might otherwise have been. However, the ring road had a few reasonable hills, restrooms along the way, and great opportunities for people-watching.

The ring road is the main highway of Angel Island. Thus, there are lots of people using lots of different means for getting around the island. Of course, there are lots of people that just walk. We saw some runners out for a jog. For those that are not so keen on walking, there is a tram that will haul you around the island and give you on a guided tour. Both road and mountain bicycles can ride on the ring road. Because there are a couple of short but steep hills, some riders decide to walk up the hills (the park recommends walking your bikes down the hills…we didn’t see anyone doing that!). For the hipsters, one can even rent a Segway (even though you have to ride with a group).

Along the way, you can stop off and see the remnants of the old military base (the island still has a Coast Guard station, which is off-limits to civilians). A number of the buildings have been renovated, while others remain in their decaying state, being battered by salt air, wind, and the other elements. It is sort of stunning to see the hulking remains of some of these base infrastructure, such as a rock crushing machine. Nowhere is this contrast more evident than on the eastern side of the island, where some buildings were converted into an event center while others are gutted shells. Gail thought that one could make a good business out of renovating some of these buildings and renting them out as lodging. I decided to keep my mouth shut.

Since we were walking around the island in a counter-clockwise direction, just about the last thing that we saw before we returned to Hospital Cove was the refurbished U.S. Immigration Station. We didn’t go into this National Historic Landmark on this trip (since we were hungry and wanted to get to the oysters and beer). However, one should certainly visit this area, which is akin to Ellis Island in New York.

After we returned to Hospital Cove, we settled in for some brew, oysters, and a sandwich. Prices were reasonable, the food was great, and there was even a folk singer strumming her guitar and belting out a few covers.

Once done with our dining, we got in the long line to wait for the ferry back to Tiburon. Had we been a little more conscious of the time, we could have been on the ferry without the wait but the weather was nice, the crowds were fun to watch, we were a bit tipsy from the beer, and so the wait was no big deal.

Definitely visit Angel Island.

“No Country for Old Men” or “A Curmudgeon’s Death Ride”

The Death Ride. Which bicycle rider in California (nay, the entire western US), hasn’t heard of it, thought about riding, or even taken the leap, thrown their leg over the top tube (no offense meant to recumbent riders), and tried the thing? (If you just want to see my photos, click here).

Let’s get the basics out of the way first. The Death Ride is a 129 mile bicycle ride in the Sierra Nevada mountains just south of Lake Tahoe. The ride ascends and descends five mountain passes: Monitor Pass (both front (west) and back (east) sides), Ebbetts Pass (both front (east) and back (west) sides), and Carson Pass (east side only). The first official Death Ride was in 1981, which made the 2010 version the 30th anniversary. The route uses three California state highways: CA-4, CA-88, and CA-89. The course is closed to traffic in certain areas (Monitor and Ebbetts Pass) while the majority of riders are on the route.  3,500 riders registered. Click here to see a map and a profile.

Before this year, I had started the Death Ride six times. There has been rain, heat, lightning, and rider inexperience/stupidity involved in all 6 prior efforts. I finished 3 or 4 passes in my first five tries (1994-1998). However, in 1999, the Fates smiled upon me, there was a tailwind up CA-88 through Woodfords Canyon, and I had a reasonable ride strategy, which allowed me to finish all five passes (even though I had to walk about 2 miles on Carson Pass due to cramping).

After 1999, I dropped out of the Death Ride scene. Work, moving to Richmond, and other life stuff took priority. Also, the ride had become very popular and the organizers went to a priority-based lottery system, where the riders from the prior year’s ride had priority in registration. I guess that this was fair but since I hadn’t ridden since 1999, the odds of me getting in seemed long.

However, each year, like a swallow returning to Capistrano, I would see the announcement, read the ride reports, and say to myself “Maybe next year.” I would even bring my bicycle to conferences in the South Lake Tahoe area and try to get in rides on one or more of the Death Ride passes.

I don’t know who from the Grizzly Peak Cyclists sent out the notice on December 10, 2009, that registration for the 2010 Death Ride was open. However, I had a little lull in work and decided to take a shot at registering. And, lo and behold, I got a spot! No lottery. Just a standard Active.com registration, just like any other ride.

After I got my spot, I immediately started riding a totally different type of ride: brevets. Some of my exploits are described in gory detail here and here. These long-distance rides are about as different from the Death Ride as one could imagine. I also rode a few double centuries, including the Devil Mountain Double, but that was in April, so any training for tough climbs that I did for DMD was long gone by the time the Death Ride rolled around.

Like a flash, 7 months had flown by since I had registered. I am laying in a tent in the Turtle Rock campground, which is the starting point for the ride. It is 1 am. Somewhere (either in the campground or, more likely, in the cars amassing in the parking lot), there is a dog barking. This dog barked for an hour straight. Finally, at 2 am, the dog quieted down. However, I was awake and was most likely not going back to sleep. Also, my mobile phone’s battery was about to die and since that was my alarm clock, I decided that I would lay there a little longer and then get up, eat some food, and start riding (using lights).

In my previous attempts, I had never used lights. Nick, my mentor in things Death Ride, told me that you got up at the sound of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and the Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers,” and started riding at first light. (It should be noted that Nick was also the guy that convinced me to ride the Death Ride, even though I hadn’t ridden a bicycle any distance at all until 2 months before the ride). So, I had no idea whether I would be all alone (except for a random mountain lion or bear) or would be in rush hour traffic when I rolled out at 3:30 am.

The question was quickly answered on the descent from Turtle Rock to Markleeville: there were a ton of riders on the road. Tail lights stretched out in front of me as far as I could see. Evidently, either others couldn’t sleep or they were nervous about the pending hot weather.

In any event, it was nice to have some company on the road, even though I had told myself that I would NOT commit the mortal sin of the Death Ride: to ride the first pass of the day (the front side of Monitor Pass) too fast and then die like a dog on the later climbs. This is harder to avoid than it sounds, since you are fresh, the air is cool, and that guy that just passed you is way fatter than you. Having fallen into that trap the first few times I rode, I turned left toward Monitor Pass, settled into a good (i.e., slow) pace and started to climb.

There is endless debate among riders of the Death Ride as to which pass is the “toughest.” The back side of Monitor has the most pure climbing (from about 5,100 feet to about 8,200 feet). The front side of Monitor is steepest over its entire length (5.85% over the entire climb). The front side of Ebbetts has some sections that are 12%-14% and it can be hot. Overall, Carson from Woodfords isn’t too steep but (1) you already have 90 miles and more than 12,000 feet of climbing in your legs and (2) there can be tough headwinds. So, in the interest of science, I have prepared a little table that presents the facts about the climbs. The table presents two sets of information: the average gradient for the “entire” climb and the gradient for the “real” climb (e.g., it ignores the false summit on the front side of Monitor, it only counts the steep part of Ebbetts (from the first steep uphill after Scossa’s Cow Camp), and it breaks Carson into 2 parts (Woodfords to Hope Valley and Red Lake to Carson)). Here are the facts (based on my HAC4 altimeter and odometer, assuming Turtle Rock is at 6,000 feet):

Death Ride Climb Statistics
Overall Climbs
Front of Monitor Back of Monitor Front of Ebbetts Back of Ebbetts Carson from Woodfords
Start Ele 5,685 5,236 5,691 6,990 5,682
End Ele 8,162 8,162 8,514 8,514 8,392
Change 2,477 2,926 2,823 1,524 2,710
Start Dist 7.50 24.66 41.21 60.30 89.49
End Dist 15.61 34.13 55.24 65.36 104.13
Change 8.11 9.47 14.03 5.06 14.64
Gradient 5.78% 5.85% 3.81% 5.70% 3.51%
“Real” Climbs
Front of Monitor Back of Monitor Front of Ebbetts Back of Ebbetts Woodford Canyon Carson from Hope Valley
Start Ele 5,685 5,236 6,497 7,020 5,682 7,378
End Ele 8,093 8,093 8,514 8,514 6,994 8,392
Change 2,408 2,857 2,017 1,494 1,312 1,014
Start Dist 7.50 24.66 49.00 60.73 89.49 100.69
End Dist 14.86 34.13 55.24 65.36 95.30 104.13
Change 7.36 9.47 6.24 4.63 5.81 3.44
Gradient 6.20% 5.71% 6.12% 6.11% 4.28% 5.58%
Notes:
1.  Assumes Turtle Rock is at 6,000 feet
2.  Elevation and mileage from HAC4 cycle computer.

I am not exactly sure why I put this table in this post, other than it answered a few of the things that I have often felt but never “proved”:

  1. The front side of Monitor is, in fact, the steepest section of the ride. It is also quite long. However, since it is the first real climb of the day, the adrenaline is still pumping, and the weather is likely cool, one sort of shrugs it off.
  2. The back side of Monitor is, from bottom to top, the steepest climb of the ride. Also, the bottom part of the climb (until one gets out of Mono County) is damned steep. However, one is usually still pretty fresh while climbing this, the temperatures are likely still pretty cool, and the views are so spectacular that you might be suffering a bit but it just doesn’t seem all that rough.
  3. The front side of Ebbetts is the killer climb of the ride. You have a long haul from the bottom of Monitor to the base of the climb (almost 8 miles of gradual and not-so-gradual uphill) and then you get slammed in the face by some really steep ramps that are unrelenting, with the steeps continuing for more than 6 miles. Also, by this time, if it isn’t raining/sleeting (which has happened to me before), the temperatures have started to rise and, as a result, you bake on the steep middle and top sections.
  4. The climb from Hermit Valley to the top of Ebbetts isn’t that must less steep than any of the other climbs. However, it is shorter (but usually hotter), making it tougher than one might otherwise think.
  5. Woodfords Canyon shouldn’t be as tough as it always seems. However, you know that you still have to climb Carson, there is a ton of traffic, the road is narrow, and there can be a nasty headwind.
  6. Carson shouldn’t be so tough, either, even though it is steeper than Woodfords Canyon (and almost as steep as the back side of Ebbetts). However, it is the last climb of the day (except for that ugly little climb from Woodfords to Turtle Rock) and you can see the whole climb right in front of your face, smirking.

In 1999, I had tried and failed 5 times to finish the Death Ride so I figured it was time for a new approach. No rocket science here: the plan was to spend as little time as possible in the rest stops, skip the rest stops at the summits (except for Carson), and try to keep moving. It worked: I started at daybreak and finished within the time limit. Thus, I planned to use the same plan this year.

Unfortunately, I soon found out that even though I had been riding LOTS of miles prior to the ride, I had not done nearly enough hill climbing and, as a result, I was climbing at a snail’s pace. Additionally, it didn’t help that I had ridden a 1,000 km brevet a couple of weeks beforehand (although that didn’t seem to slow down Jack, who had ridden the 1000k as well but looked fresh as a daisy and gave me his usual good-natured greeting as he sailed past me while I was struggling up the back side of Ebbetts).

Although I was not feeling particularly strong, I wasn’t suffering too badly as I climbed the front side of Monitor. I rolled through the rest stop at the top of Monitor, slowing only to get my first sticker (signifying that I had made it to the top of the first pass). As the sun came up, I was at the summit and stopped to take some photos of the amazing fields of flowers and the view down into the Carson Valley, where I would be in a few minutes.

Even after stopping to take photos, I was about the 20th rider to the turnaround at the intersection of CA-89 and US-395. I got my second sticker and jumped off the bike to get ready for the climb back up Monitor. After stuffing some food in my mouth and stripping off some clothes, I started back up toward Monitor Pass. It was then that I realized how slowly I was climbing. A continuous stream of riders rolled past me on the way up. I noticed that all of them had lights on their bikes, so at least they had started before daybreak. I knew now that it would be a long day. However, since I had started so early, I was hoping that I would miss the worst of the forecasted hot weather.

Since I had so much time on my hands while climbing, I began to notice the insane antics of some of the riders that were descending the back side of Monitor as I was climbing. (Full disclosure: the first year I rode the Death Ride, I hit 56 mph on the back side of Monitor but slowed down significantly when I hit the steep part of descent). Some of these morons were screaming at people to get out of their way (“On your left! On your left!”) while veering into the opposite lane (where I, along with plenty of riders, was climbing). They were also riding really, really fast. Since I had never been “off the front” of the majority of riders while climbing the back side of Monitor in the past (I was usually in the last third of the riders over Monitor), it really opened my eyes to how dangerous this ride could be. I could only imagine what was going on in their heads but it most likely involved a running commentary from an imaginary Phil Liggett, comparisons to the descending skills of Sean Yates, and visions of trying to unify with the lead pack in a mountain stage of the Tour de France. Thus, these fools kept taking chances, screaming at other riders to get out of their way, and putting themselves and others at risk.  Thankfully, I didn’t see or hear about any accidents on this stretch of the ride.

While lugging up the back side of Monitor, there are a couple of diversions. First, the scenery is just stunning and since you are riding very slowly, you even have a chance to check it out. Second, about half way up the climb, there is a water stop that is manned by a group of teenagers. However, in true Death Ride fashion, this is no ordinary water stop. The guys queue up down the hill from the water stop and wait for a rider to approach, at which point they grab your empty water bottle(s), ask what you want, and then haul ass up the hill to fill them up. When you reach the water stop, the bottle(s) are there, waiting for you. By the end of the day, these guys must have sprinted several miles, all at about 8,000 feet. It puts a smile on your face watching these guys helping out, which is sure needed for the next couple of miles to the summit.

After cresting Monitor for the second time, it was a quick (but not THAT quick) descent back to Highway 4, which would take me to Ebbetts Pass. This is a very pretty part of the ride as the road snakes up the canyon next to the East Fork of the Carson River and Silver Creek. The geology also changes here, becoming more volcanic than the rugged granite peaks more typically seen in the Sierra. As I slowly rode up this river canyon, I noticed two things: (1) that a number of riders were starting to really FLY past me (i.e., the fastest riders that started at daybreak had caught me) and (2) the temperature was starting to increase.

Having riders pass is nothing new for me, since I usually start with the earliest starters on most rides. However, most rides that I ride have a few hundred riders, while the Death Ride has about 3,500. Thus, I realized that I was in for a very long day of getting passed, which proved kind of demoralizing.

Before the climb up Ebbetts, there is a great rest stop. These folks, all locals, have about as much fun at a rest stop as one can have. This year was no different. The rest stop had a pirate theme. The volunteers were dressed as pirates and wenches. Even the kids were into it, hollering “Avast! Who needs some water, mates?” as they filled water bottles. It was, as always, a fun stop.

As I hit the first ramp on the front side of Ebbetts, it became clear that I was going to be struggling. The ramps were steep, the road was narrow, and soon there were riders coming down the other side, meaning that there was no way to zig-zag up the hills. As a result, I just slowly climbed in my lowest gear, getting out of the saddle often but not for long periods of time. As I slowly ascended, I noticed that lots of riders either didn’t call out when they were passing. As a result, I had a few riders complain when I got out of the saddle and didn’t hold directly to the edge of the road. Granted, I don’t pass many people while climbing but I usually try to let them know when I am coming up behind them and when I am going to pass, so that neither they nor I end up on the tarmac. It doesn’t seem like a lot of the racer wannabes at the Death Ride had learned that common courtesy (even though racers talk all the time in the pelaton in order to avoid crashes).

The climb up Ebbetts was tough. It was getting hot. I was running out of water. More and more riders were zipping past me. And, unfortunately, I didn’t exactly remember how many miles it was to the top. Thus, when I reached the Kinney Reservoir, I had convinced myself that I was almost at the top. Not so: there was still another mile and a few hundred more feet to climb.

When I finally reached the summit, I rolled right through and headed for Hermit Valley to get some food, liquid, and find some shade. The temperatures did not seem excessively hot. However, it was clear that it was going to be in the high 90s soon. The high temperatures, combined with my lack of sleep the night before (damn that dog!), were starting to take their toll.

Hermit Valley, which is the location of the rest and where you got your sticker to prove you had climbed Ebbetts, was a mad house. Riders were racing into the rest stop, grabbing food, and rushing to leave. Bicycles were everywhere. Some riders had their friends and families there, cheering them as they arrived.. The temperatures were higher than at Ebbetts Pass. It was dusty. Also, without the cooling breeze from riding, I was pouring sweat. Thus, I felt like I should get in and out quickly, per the plan. However, I was also feeling pretty beat up after climbing Ebbetts. Thus, I decided to hang out for a bit, find some shade, and stretch a bit. 30 minutes later (which flashed past like a wink of an eye), I knew that I had to get going. Gulping down some liquid and a few Endurolytes (which the ride sponsors didn’t seem to provide), I turned back toward Ebbetts Pass.

As noted above, the climb out of Hermit Valley seems like it shouldn’t be too tough. This is all a misconception. The climb itself isn’t too long. However, overall it is about as steep (over 6%) as the front side of Ebbetts. I always forget about the pitch and incorrectly focus on the length of the climb (about 4.5 miles). Another slow climb. More riders passing me. Temperatures going up even more. No shade.

By the time I reached Ebbetts Pass, I was really down in the dumps. It seemed like at least 95% of the riders in the event must have passed me in the last few hours. Also, even though the time didn’t seem to be a problem, I didn’t want to miss the time cut at the top of Woodfords Canyon in Hope Valley and fail to finish because I was riding so slowly. So, as I started down the front side of Ebbetts, my spirits were pretty low.

The front side of Ebbetts looked like a war zone. Riders were slumped over their bikes, gasping for breath. Some riders were sitting in the dirt, trying to muster up some energy to continue climbing. Some were walking. Some were lying in whatever shade they could find. It was only about noon and the temperatures were already in the mid-90s, meaning that they hadn’t seen the worst of it yet and were in for some really rough going, especially as they climbed out of Hermit Valley.

This was all a shock to me, since I was usually in the middle of the carnage, wondering why the riders that were descending had such looks of pity on their faces. Now I knew. I continued to pass riders as I descended all the way to the lunch stop, which was a full 10 miles to the top of Ebbetts. The riders on the lower slopes of Ebbetts were in for a very long day and had almost no hope of finishing.

I got to the lunch stop at Centerville, which is where I had ridden the day before as a warm-up ride. It sure was different today: crowds of people trying to find shade, get some food into their bellies, and get ready for the next bit. Lunch was fine. Not the best but not the worst, either. I found a spot in the shade, had some soda and tried to cool off a bit. I was done with 4 passes but my nemesis, hot weather, was rearing its ugly head. I could ride slowly and likely make the time cuts, thereby finishing. It was only another 55 miles to the finish. “Should be doable, if I get going” I told myself. However, getting out of the chair and then stepping into the sun was tough, as I knew the temperatures were still rising.

The next section of the ride (from Centerville to Woodfords) is only about 15 miles. It only has one real climb (a little 500 foot climb from Markeeville to Turtle Rock). Thus, I just put my head down, rode within myself, and decided to ignore who was passing me. I caught on with a couple of groups of riders, thereby making the time go a little faster. About 2/3 of the way to Woodfords, I arrived back at Turtle Rock. Happily, nobody had already finished the ride. I found my car and dumped my lights, spare batteries, and other junk that I didn’t need for the final ascent to Carson. Then it was a quick downhill to the water/rest stop in Woodfords.

As I rolled into the rest stop, I noticed a woman working at the rest stop wearing a Grizzly Peak Cyclists jersey. Holly and I chatted for a bit (her husband, Bruce, was out flogging himself on the ride, too…she was obviously the most sane one of the group!). As I was standing in line to get soaked with a hose, another Grizzly (Andrew) came over and introduced himself to me (he was resplendent in his Grizzly Peak Century jersey). In addition to the friendly faces of my fellow Grizzlies, there were a great crew of people filling bottles, handing out soda, and generally making life more pleasant for the riders. There was even was a character dresses as the Grim Reaper in the rest stop. Given that the temperature on the road was over 100 degrees, I was glad that it wasn’t me in that costume!

It was time for serious measures. I needed cool drinks for the slog up Woodfords Canyon. I also needed some caffeine to keep me awake. So, I grabbed a Mountain Dew and filled one bottle. One last squirt from the hose girl at the rest stop and I was off.

The climb up Woodfords Canyon isn’t all that steep. There wasn’t much wind. But, as always, there was lots of traffic. Since I was still getting passed by most riders (however, I should note that I did, in fact, start to pass some riders, too), I tried to stay on the edge of the shoulder but had to veer into the traffic lane when the shoulder got so narrow that there was a risk of riding onto the soft shoulder and falling. As a result, some of the faster riders were a bit peeved since this old, chunky curmudgeon in the Grizzly Peak Cyclist jersey was slowing them down. Nothing could be done about that, so I just kept my pace, watched my heat rate (keeping it at about 140 bpm), and spun up the canyon to Hope Valley and the next rest stop.

The rest stop at Hope Valley is the “do or die” spot on the ride. The positives:

  • You are at mile 95.
  • The temperatures are starting to come down.
  • You only have another 9 miles to go before Carson Pass, ice cream, and success.

However, There are some negatives:

  • You are at mile 95 and you want to lie down (don’t do that…your legs will almost certainly cramp).
  • The temperatures are coming down but it is still almost 100 degrees.
  • You only have 9 more miles to go but it had taken an hour to ride the 6 miles from the last rest stop, so who knows how long it will take me to climb up that last 1,400 feet.
  • There were so many riders that there is no place to sit down!

So, what do you do? More Mountain Dew. More Endurolytes. Get a little more food into the stomach. Wait for someone to stand up and grab an open spot on a log in the shade. Stretch the legs. Hope to catch a little breeze. Keep your eye on the watch.

Then, it is time to go. Fill the bottles with ice, cold water, and Mountain Dew, find the bike, and get riding. Let’s finish this thing!

The ride through Hope Valley is just wonderful. The scenery is amazing most years. This year, it was even better than normal, given the heavy snowpack from the previous winter. So, I told myself:

“Self, just keep looking around and keep your mind off of your aching legs. Notice the wildflowers by the side of the road and in the meadows. Look at the great mountains all around. Chat a little bit with a fellow traveler that has never ridden this way before. If they speed up, bid them farewell and keep to your pace. If they drop back, let them know that you have to keep to your pace (which isn’t very fast but is about the best you can do).”

There are a couple of rollers before the grand finale up to Carson Pass. These seem to be interminable but that is only because you are riding so slowly. There are still riders passing but not as many as before. Every once in a while, you catch on with a group and follow a wheel, not to draft but to have something to keep you on task.

After reaching Red Lake, the fun begins. Ahead of you, you can see the road, which is cut out of the granite cirque. That is where you will be riding. Two riders I was following pulled over for a break and so I did the same. One of the riders was David, Fred’s son (Fred was the guy that I rode with on my first double century). David was riding with Team in Training. We chatted a bit about our aches and pains, about what was up ahead, and just hung out a bit. A nice break before the last ascent.

The last time I rode the Death Ride, I was cramping so badly at the start of the last climb that I walked from Red Lake almost all the way to the top of Carson Pass. The goal this year was to avoid walking. Putting the bike in the lowest gear I had, I started up the final climb. Surprisingly, it went much more smoothly than I had any right to expect. That is not to say that it was easy. However, as I climbed, the temperature dropped to a cool 80 degrees, making it feel downright chilly, which suited me fine. Some people don’t like seeing the road up ahead. Not me: I like knowing where I am and what is in store. It allows me to mentally check off bits of the climb and realize that I am going to make it.

As I make right-hand bend of the road, I am at the top! Unfortunately, this isn’t where the rest area is located. A little drop down the back side of the pass and there it is: the final rest stop! A quick glance at the watch: 5:20 pm.

There is another mob scene at the rest stop. Ride volunteers check your bib to make sure that you have all of your stickers, note your time, give you a pin and a hearty congratulations, and send you off to get your ice cream and to sign the Death Ride poster. In other words, the ride was done…there was no need to ride back to Turtle Rock and, consequently, some riders decide that this is the end of the road, as it were. They have friends and family meet them, they pile into cars and split. This seems sad to me, since those riders miss out on the amazing descent from Carson Pass to Woodfords.

I wandered around the rest stop for a while, grinning and just taking in the scene. I saw David with his group of TNT riders and went over to congratulate him.  He, like I, was definitely happy to be at the top. I looked around for Linda, a friend who I had ridden with on a number of double centuries but didn’t find her. It was just nice to be walking around, off the bike, and done with almost all of the climbs (except for that last bit back to Turtle Rock).

After filling up the bottles one more time, it was time to ride back down to Woodfords and then on to Turtle Rock. The descent was about as much fun as a person can have on a bicycle. 15 miles of pretty smooth pavement, almost no uphill, and 70 degree temperatures. Remembering what I had seen earlier that day, I kept my speed under control on the steep part of the descents and then zipped along the flats at a fair clip. Even the traffic was light, making it unnecessary to hug the side of the road. Too much fun!

All good things must end, however, and after I turned right off of Highway 88 at Woodfords, there was that little matter of getting back up to Turtle Rock. It is only 300 feet of climbing over 4 miles. However, after flying down from Carson Pass, it was a little shock on the legs to have to start working again. Slowly, slowly I made my way back to Turtle Rock, getting cheered by friends and families either waiting for their riders or just hanging out and supporting anyone that came by. It is quite a feeling and I could feel my face starting to hurt from smiling.

Then, it is done. Since all of the formalities took place at Carson Pass, there was nothing left to do except to buy some merch from the Death Ride Boutique, get an ice cream, take a shower, and pack up the car for the drive to the motel in South Lake Tahoe.

What did I learn from this ride?

  1. To ride hills, you have to ride hills. Next time, I will not try to substitute miles for climbing. It is a lousy trade.
  2. As an old curmudgeon, I find the behavior of some riders (primarily younger ones) to be appalling. Some common courtesy is sure nice, especially when passing.
  3. The Death Ride course is about as beautiful a ride as exists anywhere. Do not miss any opportunities to ride in this region.
  4. Some people don’t like the Death Ride because it is very commercial, has high entry fees, and sells every imaginable form of merchandise. I have to respectfully disagree. Alpine County (the home of the Death Ride) is dirt poor with very high unemployment. The Death Ride puts money into the local economy. I don’t mind paying relatively high entry fees for a ride such as that (having paid about that much to an un-named for-profit ride organizer in the past).
  5. Lights saved me. If I ride the Death Ride again, I will be starting early and using lights.

The only remaining question is: When is registration next year?

Ride Statistics:

Mileage: 129 miles

Climbing: 14,400 feet

Elapsed time: 16:00

Riding time: 12:40

Time off the bike: 3:20

Average speed: 8.1 mph

Average rolling speed:  10.2 mph

Berkeley: City of Hidden Historical Markers!

It was July 5 and I needed to go to my mom’s house in Castro Valley. Gail was free so we decided to hop on the tandem and pedal over. Since it had been a few weeks since our last Landmark adventure, we dug out the book, IDed some of the Landmarks in Berkeley and Oakland that we had missed to date, and took off (of course, going on a ride like this is never a “decide and ride” event: the departure was fraught with clothing and food choices, bike prep, sunscreen, and myriad other tasks). (Want to just look at the pictures? Click here.)

Since the main purpose of the ride was to actually get to my mother’s house in a reasonable amount of time, we designed a route that would hit the maximum number of Landmarks with the least amount of veering off-course. Thus, we were going to ride up toward the University of California, hit a couple of Landmarks in the general vicinity, and then head toward Oakland, and San Leandro. After meeting with Mom, we could visit Castro Valley’s only officially-designated Historical Landmark before hopping on BART for the return home.

Our first stop would be an easy one: the University of California, Berkeley Campus (Historical Landmark #946).  According to our “California Historical Landmark” book: “These landmarks form the historic core of the first University of California campus, opened in 1873: Founders’ Rock, University House, Faculty Club and Glade, Hearst Greek Theater, Hearst Memorial Mining Building, Doe Library, Sather Tower and Esplanade, Sather Gate and Bridge, Hearst Gymnasium, California, Durant, Wellman, Hilgard, Giannini, Wheeler, North Gate, and South Halls.”

In my misspent youth, I had attended college at UC, we had lived in Berkeley for a number of years, and I also had a great innate sense of direction. I even knew where a number of the buildings mentioned in the description quoted above were found on campus. However, we assumed that there was only ONE official Marker, not a bunch of them scattered all over the campus. Thus, we searched high and low around “University Avenue, Berkeley” looking for the thing. We even asked a couple of UC police officers where we might find the Marker (they didn’t even know such a thing existed…so much for the observation abilities of UCB’s finest). Gail seemed to recall a marker of some variety in a redwood grove but that was not the OFFICIAL Marker. We even tried the UC information building, with no joy (since the place was shut down for the July 4th holiday). We are going to have to go back to the campus with the list of official buildings and see if the State actually sprung for more than one Marker. However, that was for another day. Mom was waiting, so off we went, without finding the Marker. Once again, we were starting off one of these trips without anything to show for our first visit.

Fortunately, we were in the dumps for only a few minutes, since our next destination, the Berkeley City Club, was only a few blocks away and I was certain that it had a Marker. The Berkeley City Club was organized by women in 1927, to contribute to social, civic, and cultural progress. The building, constructed in 1929, is one of the outstanding works of noted California architect Julia Morgan, whose interpretation of Moorish and Gothic elements created a landmark of California design.

This place is just lovely from the outside. It stands on the north side of Durant Avenue, the sun was shining on it, and the building was looking great. Upon closer examination, we could see that it was getting a little worn in places. I had attended meetings in this building and the interior was a little faded but still grand. No matter: this building truly looks like a Historical Landmark. Also, the Marker was right on the façade, so no need for any hunting to find the thing. Definitely visit this place and then follow up your visit with a trip to Yogurt Park, which is just up Durant Ave. from the City Club!

Our next stop, Piedmont Way (Historical Landmark #986), was a surprise to us. Piedmont Way was conceived in 1865 by Fredrick Law Olmsted, America’s foremost landscape architect. As the centerpiece of a gracious residential community close beside the College of California, Olmsted envisioned a roadway that would follow the natural contours of the land and be sheltered from sun and wind by “an overarching bowery of foliage.” This curvilinear, tree-lined parkway was Olmsted’s first residential street design. it has served as the model for similar parkways across the nation.

Anyone that has lived in or around Berkeley for any length of time knows this road. It runs across the top of the campus, past fraternity and sorority houses, the International House, Hearst Greek Theater, Memorial Stadium, and other landmarks. The architecture along the road varies from Julia Morgan wood-singled structures to ghastly apartment buildings, which presumably replaced the old grand houses that originally graced the road. There is a circle at Channing Way, where frat boys play frisbee on warm spring days. The smell of beer is evident, especially on a weekend day. Trees provide plenty of shade on the days where the sun pokes through our omnipresent marine layer. Plants and flowers are everywhere. The only thing that this street seems to be missing is the OFFICIAL HISTORICAL MARKER! We rode up and down the street a few times, with Gail looking for the Marker and me trying to avoid getting run down by motorists gawking at the sights. We even drove down the non-curvilinear part of Piedmont Ave., looking for the thing. No luck.

However, don’t let the lack of a Marker deter you from visiting this beautiful street. Walking is probably the best way to get to see the great houses, the use of native plants, the way that the curves tend to calm traffic, and the overall coolness of having a street follow the contour of the land. Not to be missed.

Batting a cool .333, we headed out of Berkeley, toward Oakland, San Leandro, and our rendezvous with Mom.

A great 200k but a sad day

On July 24, 2010, I rode the Santa Cruz Randonneurs’ Moss Beach 200k. This ride took me through some parts of Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties that I had not seen before. It also was just a downright fun but, ultimately, was overshadowed by events of the previous day. The cue sheet for the ride is here. The ride profile is here. If you want to skip the text and just see the photos, click here or watch the slideshow below.

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After a drive down from Richmond on the morning of the ride and a fine breakfast of pancakes from McDonald’s, I dropped my car near the end point of the ride and rode to the start of the ride (about 1.7 miles) with Joe, who was riding his first brevet. The start was at the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, which is the home of the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, Santa Cruz Lighthouse, so as we headed for the start, we rode past Steamer Lane and saw a group of surfers out waiting for some tasty waves. It was good to know that there were other crazies out at that time of the morning, doing their thing.

The ride had quite a turnout, probably because the weather was supposed to be great and the course was not a killer. While checking in, I ran into Steve, who I rode with for a while on the SF Randonneurs’ Davis Night 200k. About five minutes before the start, Bill gave a short introduction to the ride, providing any last-minute details. After he had finished, it was time to roll.

The parcourse is very straightforward: head north from Santa Cruz on Highway 1 along the coast, turn inland at Gazos Creek and then ride along Stage Road to avoid a nasty stretch of road from south of Pescadero to north of San Gregorio, and then return to Highway 1, where we would continue north to Moss Beach, turn around, and head back to Santa Cruz (with a little detour to La Honda and a nice ride on Pescadero Road to the outskirts of Pescadero, followed by a quick run down Cloverdale Road and Gazos Creek Road, which returned us to Highway 1).

As we rolled out of Santa Cruz, there was the normal sorting out as riders figured out who was going at their pace. Even though this wasn’t going to be a brute of a ride, it still seemed prudent to keep my pace under control at the start so that I would enjoy the last part of the ride (rather than straggling in like a whipped dog). That being said, I knew that there might be a headwind on the northward leg from San Gregorio to Moss Beach, so getting in (and staying with a group) would make life easier in the long run, too.

Heading north toward the first controle at Pescadero, a small group formed, consisting of Clyde, Kevin, Joe, Patty, and a couple of others. It was early on Saturday morning and the traffic wasn’t heavy, so it was possible to ride in not quite a single file line and chat. Joe, who was riding a very nice-looking Rivendell, told me that he had been a racer in the distant past but had recently started riding more. Kevin, who I had ridden with on the SCR 1000k, filled me in on his background as a jeweler and business owner in San Luis Obispo. Since Gail had worked at Fisher’s Custom Design Jewelry for about 20 years as a designer and sales person, he and I had a fine time talking about the joys of retail and custom jewelry sales.

Before I knew it, we rode into Pescadero. And we all know what that means, right? ARCANGLI GROCERY COMPANY!!! I grabbed two pastries out of the case, a bottle of Fruit Punch Gatorade, and went outside to chow. However, my compatriots had a different idea: they were planning to ride and eat at the same time. I wasn’t ready to go, so they rode off up Stage Road, while I sat down with Don and enjoyed my cheese pocket, which is an amazing combination of a cheese danish and a croissant. Oh my! Did I ever enjoy it.

After the first pastry was history, I was eying the second but started to feel like if I sit for too much longer, I would start to tighten up. So, I tucked my cinnamon roll into my bag and headed north on Stage Road toward San Gregorio.

On the SCR 1000k, we had ridden south on Stage Road, so this was my first time going north. The first bit is kind of flat and I could see small groups of riders up ahead on the flats or on the hill. However, as you hit the end of the valley, the road turns hard left and starts to climb over the first ridge. Not a tough climb at all but it was definitely the first true “climb” of the day. It felt good to get out of the saddle to stretch my legs while climbing. After cresting the first hill, I started to wind down the other side. Stage Road really twists and turn at this point. In fact, as I started up the next hill, I caught a glimpse of a road over my left shoulder that appeared to be heading off toward the ocean. Stopping for a second, I got off the bike and wondered if I had missed a turn. It seemed unlikely but I didn’t want to end up lost in the Santa Cruz mountains. As I looked back down the road, it became clear that the road “heading off to the ocean” was in fact the road I had just ridden! At that point, feeling totally turned around, I just got back on the bike and kept heading up the hill. Perhaps getting up so early to drive to Santa Cruz was having some effect on my perception. I hoped not…

After reaching San Gregorio, I caught up with Kevin. From that point to the next controle, he and I either rode together (or I could see him ahead of me up the road) all the way to Moss Beach. I had to make a couple of unplanned stops along the way (such as taking a picture of a hay bale maze on Highway 1), so he would keep riding and I would do my business and then work to catch up. The wind was blowing but not too badly, so riding alone was not a problem. Also, since the traffic was getting heavier, it was almost easier to ride alone, since I didn’t have to worry about touching wheels with another rider.

After arriving at Moss Beach, which was controle #2, I purchased my Gatorade in the Coastside Market, put my receipt into my baggie, and headed back out onto Highway 1. Before I did, I took out my other pastry, deciding that the tailwind would make it easy to eat while riding. Kevin, Clyde, and Pat had left before me, so I just started to cruise on my own with a nice tailwind toward Half Moon Bay. Along the way, I rode a bit with Joel, who is a member of the San Francisco Randonneurs. We compared notes on ride preparation strategies, with Joel being a “physical list” person and me being a “mental list” person. I could see the attraction of having physical lists (grab the items on the list and then and cross them off). I will have to put that goal on a list!

Because of the tailwind, the ride south to San Gregorio was a quick one. I linked up with Kevin for a bit as we climbed the big roller away from Tunitas Creek. Once over the top, it is a quick zip down into San Gregorio via Stage Road. In town, it was time to strip down, since the fog had lifted and we were turning east on Highway 84 and heading toward La Honda. Having never ridden Highway 84 in this direction, I couldn’t remember how much climbing this involved or how much the wind from the ocean would help, so shedding some clothes at this point would save me from a potential stop along the road.

When Kevin rolled into San Gregorio, he offered to take my picture. As he was framing the shot, he said that I should stand next to the cute woman that was fussing with her bicycle next to me. When she heard this, her head whipped around and she immediately walked away. I can’t say that I can blame her.

The road from San Gregorio to La Honda is a mixed bag. The “plus” side of the ledger: The grade is easy, the wind normally helps push you along, the scenery is nice, and there is food in La Honda. There “minus” side of the ledger was not as long but was still important: There is a good amount of fast traffic and there are some really aggressive moto riders. As a result, I tried to get up to La Honda as quickly as possible, which meant that I didn’t stop to check out the rodeo at Driscoll Ranch.

La Honda is a wide spot on Highway 84. There are a couple of bars, a gas station, and some kind of camping/lodge. Our controle was at the La Honda Country Market, which had a large banner proudly announcing that it was under new, local management! The sandwiches in the case looked good but I wasn’t that hungry, so I just had a couple of cookies, which were just great!

The downside of using this market as a controle is that they do not have a restroom for their customers. However, the bar/restaurant across the parking lot was supposed to have one, so I strolled over. My policy regarding using a restroom at a commercial establishment is that you need to buy something in exchange for using the facilities. I didn’t want food. I also didn’t think that having a beer and a bump was a good idea, since I didn’t really know what was ahead except that there was some climbing, so I asked the barkeep for a glass of chocolate milk. She looked at me like Nick the Bartender looked at Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life” when he asked for hot mulled wine. However, she saw that I was riding my bicycle, so she knew that I had some loose screws. I told her that I was going to use the restroom and would be right back. Well, there was only one restroom and it seemed like there was a convention in town, so it took me about 30 minutes to get in and out. I went back into the bar, where I gulped down the chocolate milk (whole milk mixed with Hershey’s syrup…YUM!) and headed out. When I had entered the bar, there had been a throng of randonneurs at the market. No more. Once again, my snail-like pace at the stops had left me in the dust.

As I got ready to go, Lois rolled in. Since I had never ridden the next bit (Pescadero Road and Pescadero Creek Road), I asked her what was in store. “Not too steep and not too long,” she said. Sounded good to me, so off I went, back down Highway 84 until the left turn onto Pescadero Road.

What Lois didn’t tell me was that, aside from the hill, the road is just fabulous! The climb isn’t too bad (a couple of miles…not more than about 600 feet of climbing). However, you are in the redwoods while climbing, so it is shady and pleasant. Once you get to the top of the hill, the fun really starts. You have a very long gradual descent toward Pescadero, first through the redwoods and then along Pescadero Creek. What a great road! I have to admit that I got a little carried away riding down here but it was just too much fun! Can you tell that I had a great time (and made great time) heading down toward Pescadero?

The route doesn’t actually take you back through Pescadero. Instead, you turn left at Butano Cut-Off, pass Pescadero High School, and then start to retrace the route from the morning along Cloverdale Road, Gazos Creek Road, and Highway 1. I could see a group of four riders up ahead on Cloverdale Road and was feeling frisky, so I put my head down and, aided by a nice tailwind, busted to catch them. There was no need to do this, since it was clear that there was going to be a great tailwind on Highway 1 into Santa Cruz. However, when you want to go, sometimes you have to, regardless of the consequences down the road.

As I caught onto the back of the group a bit before the turn onto Gazos Creek Road, I discovered that it was the remnants of my group from the morning: Clyde, Joe, and Patty. The forth rider was Art, who I had ridden with at the end of the SFR 600k. I was a little winded when I finally caught them, so I just tucked in behind and took a little break. We turned down Gazos Creek and rolled to Highway 1, where we turned south for home.

There is just about nothing nicer than having a sunny day on the coast, a nice tailwind, and a good group to ride with. We zipped along, letting the coastal highway show off its best attributes: lovely fields, hills, creeks, and beaches. One example: at one beach, there had to be about 20 people sail-surfing. These maniacs would be tearing along on broad reach when, all of the sudden, they would hit a wave and get airborne, soaring what appeared to be 30 feet into the air before landing and continuing to sail! It was quite a sight to see.

The group held together for quite a while. South of Davenport, Art started to pull off the front. I was torn: do I stay with Clyde, Joe, and Patty or do I catch Art and work together to power to the finish? After hovering in between the two groups for a while, I decided that I was feeling strong enough, picked up the pace, and latched onto Art’s wheel. We worked together, enjoying the tailwind, and suddenly we were in Santa Cruz, where we found Bill and Lois’s house, which was the final controle of the day.

The post-ride fare was excellent: chocolate milk, soda, chips, cookies. It was nice to sit for a while and chat with Bill, who was running the controle, about how one actually gets to live in Santa Cruz, which is a great beach town (FYI, many people try to live in Santa Cruz but few succeed).

Overall, it was just a great ride but, ultimately, a sad day. The ride was a joy: a fast time (for me, anyway), excellent weather (minimal headwinds riding north and sweet headwinds on the return), and fun riding company. Unfortunately, the joy of the ride got trumped when I found out that Daniel Schorr, the great radio and television journalist, had died the previous day. The rememberances that I listened to that day (with the best, in my opinion, by Scott Simon on Weekend Edition) were moving. Gail and I made listening to Mr. Schorr’s segment at 6 or 8 am an integral part of our Saturday mornings. He was a brave, principled, hard-nosed, iconic figure in the news business and he will be missed.

Ride statistics:

  • Distance: 125 miles
  • Climbing: 5,300 feet
  • Profile:
  • Rolling time: 8:27
  • Overall time: 9:57

The cue sheet for the ride is here. The ride profile is here.

“I think that Google Maps for bicycles isn’t quite ready for prime time”

On June 20, it was time to hit the road again and see some Historical Landmarks. Since our last adventure, I had ridden the San Francisco Randonneurs’ Davis Night Ride (a 200 km brevet from Hercules to Davis and back that starts at 8 pm and ended for me at about 7:45 am the next morning). I was so excited about riding to Davis (and after we had so much fun in Solano County visiting Benicia and Fairfield), Gail and I wanted to visit the two Historical Landmarks that were in Solano County but most remote from our house. Also, Gail wanted to ride Pleasants Valley Road. Finally, I wanted to get her on the Capitol Corridor trains. To meet all of those constraints, we decided to drive to Fairfield, ride to Vacaville and Winters (to see Landmarks), continue on to Davis, and then take the train back to Fairfield.

At first, we thought we should take the train from Richmond to Fairfield. However, that was going to take some extra time and we were having trouble getting going, so we decided to make the quick drive from Richmond to the Amtrak station in Fairfield, which is where we would start our ride. Easy, right? I swear, we must have driven around Fairfield for 45 minutes, trying to find the Amtrak station. Our first mistake was to think that the Amtrak station was somewhat near Fairfield’s downtown. After getting off I-80 at the sign pointing toward downtown Fairfield, we were treated to a long drive down W. Texas Street, through and past downtown, before we stopped at a gas station to look at the map. Way too far. No problem…just turn around and head back, since we must have missed the signs pointing toward the Amtrak station. After making a U-turn, we headed back into downtown Fairfield. No signs to Amtrak.

I could see the tracks. I KNEW that the station had to be around here somewhere. We took the bicycle directions I had printed for the ride and tried to reverse-engineer the directions to Amtrak. It looked like we had it until we hit the road that forced us to get onto CA Highway 12, which was NOT where we wanted to go. We went down one exit, turned around, and headed back toward Fairfield. We finally saw it: a sign indicating that we were heading toward the Amtrak station! After some bobbing and weaving around the ramps of Highway 12, we finally pulled into the Amtrak parking lot. Now THAT was 1.5 hours well-spent!

After unloading the tandem, we headed out of the parking lot, trying to follow the directions that I had printed from Google Maps. Before I start on the rant, let me say that I LOVE Google Maps. It is the mapping program that I ALWAYS turn to. Google added a feature to Google Maps that seemed great: it would find a route for bicycles! Since Gail and I were going to be on a bicycle, we thought that we should give this feature a try.

The directions out of the train station to get to W. Texas St. (which was where we had been driving about 30 minutes previously) were incomprehensible. There were no street names in some cases (even though the directions indicated that we should turn). I guess if I had a military-quality GPS system, we might have been able to determine when we had traveled 255 feet. However, since my Ciclosport HAC-4 only measured in tenths of miles (and I was trying to avoid getting hit by Sunday morning drivers or running into curbs), I must have missed one or more of the turn. I finally said that we HAD to go over this pedestrian bridge to get across the railroad tracks and get to W. Texas St. Thus, for the next 30 minutes or so, we were riding based on my excellent innate sense of direction, the sun, and dumb luck.

After winding around in a few subdivisions of Fairfield, we finally came across one of the roads on the directions from Google Maps. I thought that this was a good sign. However, after following the directions for about a mile, we were told to turn right and then make a left turn in 39 feet (again, with no road named). We went into Capricorn Circle, looped around it once, and popped back out where we had started. No bike path. No way to get out of the circle (unless we were to get off the tandem, walk up to one of the houses, open a gate, and walk through their yard, and then hopped over their back fence). Since there was no mention of such antics, I wasn’t quite ready to face a trespassing  rap in Solano County, so we headed back out of the circle, with a single question on our minds: where in the hell do we go?

It wasn’t hard to know the general direction of travel that we should to take. We should be heading toward Peña Adobe, which is on the other side of the hills from Fairfield. We could see the hills. Google Maps said that there was a route that would go over the hills (rather than taking the route that I was familiar with, which went on frontage roads west of I-80). However, every time we tried to cut through a subdivision, we would hit a dead-end (at the edge of the subdivision…there wouldn’t be a road out the “back way”, which meant we had to go back out of the subdivision and try again). Finally, we found the road that was supposed to take us to the mystery shortcut over the hill to (aptly named Paradise Valley Road). We were home free!

Not so fast, cowboy! Paradise Valley dead-ended at a construction site. No way through. So, make a U-turn, go back down the hill, and head east on Manual Compos Parkway, where, to our surprise, we found yet another Paradise Valley Road! Feeling like there couldn’t be more than two of these, we turned and headed toward the hills, Lagoon Valley, and our first Historical Landmark.

We wound around a bit until we were on the road that was supposed to go over the hill, which happened to be named, you guessed it, PARADISE VALLEY ROAD!!! We went up what appeared to be a driveway until we arrived at a very serious-looking locked gate with “NO TRESPASSING” plastered all over it. The gate wasn’t all that tall and I think that we might have been able to get the tandem and our bodies over it. However, Gail was not going to have any of that nonsense. So, back down the hill. However, now where? We knew that we had to get over those hills. We saw a woman sitting in her car and I rolled up next to her and asked how we could get to Lagoon Valley. She guffawed a couple of times and said that she too had tried the Paradise Valley Road route (based on Google Maps) and had the same result as we had just had. She told us how to get back to W. Texas St., which would turn into N. Texas St., which would take us across I-80 and to the ONLY ROUTE FROM FAIRFIELD TO VACAVILLE. As we rolled off, I said to Gail “I think that Google Maps for bicycles isn’t quite ready for prime time.”

After 2.5 hours and about 10 miles, we were still in Fairfield. We finally found N. Texas St. and were heading toward I-80 when we realized that we were starving. After a Pollo Loco stop, we finally got across I-80 to Lyon Road. Finally, I had some idea where we were.

From there, it was a quick ride to Peña Adobe, which is the site of the Vaca-Peña Adobe (Historical Landmark #534). This is the site of the 10-square-league Rancho Los Putos that Governor Pio Pico granted to Juan Felipe Peña and Manuel Cabeza Vaca in 1845. The Peña Adobe, erected here in 1843, is still owned by the descendants of their families (as of 1955). The nearby town of Vacaville was established in 1851 on land that Vaca sold to William McDaniel.

The adobe was closed to visitors (which, unfortunately, seems to be a common trait among the Historical Landmarks). It took some hunting around but we finally found the Marker. There were a bunch of other monuments, plaques, and other items commemorating the place as a spot of historic significance. Aside from the plaques, there was some fairly neat antique farm implements. Also, the adobe had a pretty big selection of religious statuary and other stuff. Families were having picnics under the trees. Lagoon Valley was a stone’s throw away. This is also the starting point for the Knoxville Double Century, which is put on by the Quack Cyclists, who are widely acknowledged as the best organizers of double century rides in California. All told, it is a pretty nice spot, as long as you don’t rely on the Google Maps directions for bicycles to get there.

According to our book, the next Historical Landmark was somewhere outside of Winters. This meant that we could ride up Pleasants Valley Road to get there. This would be a treat. Pleasants Valley Road is an amazing combination of farmland, rolling hills, and ranches with a public road running through the middle. There is usually very little traffic, the rolling hills aren’t too tall, and it is just downright pretty. Gail had never ridden through here, although she did pick me up along this road one afternoon when I did a loop from Fairfield to Napa, Lake Berryessa, and Pleasants Valley. That day, the sun was out and the fields were an emerald green. Because of the late rains this spring, I suspected that the fields might be just as great today, which they were.

After riding most of Pleasants Valley Road, we turned onto Putah Creek Road, which goes to Winters and then continues onward in the general direction of Davis. When you start at Pleasants Valley Road, Putah Creek Road is just a blast, as it gently rolls down toward the Central Valley next to Putah Creek. We were zipping along at a pretty good clip, enjoying the views of Lake Solano and various orchards when Gail yelled “STOP! STOP!”

I jammed on the brakes, thinking that she had fallen off the back of the tandem. Nothing that dire had happened. Instead, she had called on just as she saw the unannounced Historical Marker on the side of the road! What the hell was this? Why, it was the University of California Experimental Farm, Wolfskill Grant (Historical Landmark #804). In 1842, John R. Wolfskill arrived here, laden with fruit seeds and cuttings. A true horticulturist, he became the father of the fruit industry in this region. In 1937 his daughter, Mrs. Frances Wolfskill Taylor Wilson, bequeathed 107.28 acres to the University of California for an experimental farm. The university’s research at this portion of Rancho Rio de los Putos has enriched the state’s horticultural industry.

We weren’t able to see very much here. There is a pretty high chain link fence that keeps unwanted visitors out of the Experimental Farm. Perhaps that is why the state decided to not put any sort of sign announcing the Historical Landmark on this road. Had my sharp-eyed bride not seen this, we would have been in Winters, scratching our heads and wondering how we had missed this piece of California history. Although I am a big fan of agriculture, I don’t think I would drive all the way out here just to visit this site. However, when you toss in Pleasants Valley Road, warm sunshine, a good tailwind, and the prospect of food in Winters and a train ride, that tipped the scales and made the ride worthwhile.

After the Experimental Farm, we rode into Winters and had some food at Steady Eddy’s. This place is a staple for Grizzly Peak Cyclist rides from Berkeley to Davis. It is obviously a standard stopping point for other riders too, since it has a couple of well-used bicycle racks in front, so that riders can get their food and keep an eye on their bicycles. Winters itself is a very cute town, with a small central square and a nice main street. After eating, we rode up and down a bit, checking the place out. It looked like there were some good eateries there. Those would have to wait for another day.

As we headed south out of Winters and back toward Putah Creek Road, we rode over the J. Robert Chapman Memorial Bridge, which used to be a railroad bridge back in the day but has since been converted into a pedestrian/bicycle bridge over Putah Creek. The City of Winters took this hulking, dilapidated bridge and renovated it, which makes crossing Putah Creek much nicer. Don’t miss this if you visit Winters.

Turning left onto Putah Creek Road again, we continued our gradual downhill ride toward Davis. Along the way we saw a large steel bicycle statue on the side of the road in honor of the Davis Bike Club and the Davis Race Team, which hold their annual Putah Creek Time Trial along this road. As we continued along, we somehow managed to sneak up on a couple engaged in a little illicit sexual activity on the side of the road by an orchard. Man, did they jump when we rode past! There was also a big lavender farm that was made you want to stop and just breath deeply because of the scent of the lavender.

After a few more miles and a couple of turns, we finally got onto Russell Blvd., which is the main bike route into Davis from the west. Even though there was a very official-looking bicycle path next to the road, I wanted to ride in the road. We went along for a bit and then Gail expressed her displeasure with my choice, saying that the bike path was there to be used and that she thought the locals would be unhappy if we were in the road, even though there was a fine shoulder and almost no traffic. After a little back and forth, I turned onto the bike path. The path, while separate from traffic, didn’t insulate you from cars, since riders still had to deal with cross streets. Also, for some reason, the bike path changed sides of the road a couple of times, which would have required crossing Russell. At that point, I said “No mas!” and we rode on the road the rest of the way into Davis.

We had some time before the train was departing, so we tooled around Davis a bit. The students were gone, making the town look like all college towns during the summer: sleepy and catching their breath. We had a frozen yogurt and then headed over to the Amtrak station to get tickets and wait for the Capitol Corridor. The warm weather and the sweets in the yogurt caught up with me and I was soon snoring on a park bench while Gail got the tickets.

When the train arrived, we dragged the bicycle onboard, put it in the bike rack, and found seats in the upstairs passenger compartment. We tore along through the Central Valley and in no time at all were in Fairfield.

After getting off the train, we noticed that there was an It’s It outlet next to the train station. $1 for an It’s It? I was there! That alone might be reason enough to start a bicycle ride in Fairfield.

Lessons learned:

  1. When Google Maps says to turn but there isn’t a street name, it seems that they are recommending that you turn onto a sidewalk. Perhaps a little note somewhere explaining this convention might be helpful.
  2. Google Maps doesn’t appear to distinguish between public and private roads, at least with regards to their bicycle maps.
  3. Although an adventure is a good thing now and again, always keep track of where you are so that you can find your way out.
  4. I can’t think of a nicer road to ride than Pleasants Valley Road, especially during the daylight hours.
  5. Having a sharp-eyed stoker can save a lot of backtracking when trying to find something.

If you want to see the rest of our photos from this adventure, click here.

“So big, come twice!”

Gail and I rode to Benicia on May 16, 2010 to visit the numerous Historical Landmarks in this small town that is important in California’s history. (If you want to read about our trip, click here.) However, because there were so bloody many places to visit (and we started the day out with a quick ride out to Fairfield), we threw over visiting some of the Landmarks in town for Starbucks and ice cream.  We couldn’t let that stand. Now was the time to see the others.

Since we were already in a visiting frenzy, after seeing several Historical Landmarks in Livermore, we decided that we should just get in the car and drive to Benicia. I know that many of our loyal followers (you are out there, aren’t you?) seem to think that we had planned to ride our tandem to visit all of the Historical Landmarks in California. While this might be a noble goal for some, we take a less dogmatic approach to this adventure. Ride if it makes sense. Drive if it makes sense. Why, we might even FLY if it makes sense. So, today, we were driving.

I am telling you all this even though we could have pretended to have ridden to Benicia from Livermore, into a stiff headwind, with smiles on our faces and determination in our hearts. After all, as the photos below demonstrate, we were wearing bicycling garb. In fact, we even had our tandem with us. A less honest adventurer might have taken the tandem off of the top of the car, wheeled it in front of the Landmarks, snapped some photos, and nobody would be the wiser. In fact, one member of our team even suggested something akin to that. However, we decided that we didn’t want to deceive you, our fair readers (or reader…thanks, Mom). Also, that damned tandem is HEAVY, so getting it off of the rack is a pain. So we just visited the places sans tandem, with me making a clean breast of it in this post.

We had left four Historical Landmarks unvisited our last trip. Our first stop was Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church (Historical Landmark #862). Designed in 1859 by Lt. Julian McAllister and built by shipwrights of the Pacific Mail and Steamship Company, St. Paul’s is an outstanding example of early California Gothic ecclesiastical architecture. Notable for its fine craftsmanship, this building has continuously served the Episcopal Church since its consecration by the Rt. Rev. William Ingraham Kip in 1860.

This place is very interesting. In addition to being a great-looking church, it had a labyrinth! Not some cheesy little maze cast into the concrete in front of the place but a full-fledged labyrinth with a brick path and gravel where one is not supposed to walk, right next to the sanctuary. I don’t know the reason that the church fathers (and mothers) decided to put this beauty next to the church but, to be brutally honest (which our readers know is our hallmark here at CALandmarks.wordpress.com), it seems a little un-Episcopal to have people wandering around in this maze, eyes down, meditating on the world around us. Not that that is a bad thing. It just seems a little out-of-place. That is just one man’s opinion.

And another thing: What exactly is a Rt. Reverend, anyway? The guy that consecrated this church had that title and I have been wondering about that. If you are not a Rt. Rev., does that mean that you are a Wrong Rev.? If you are not a part of the solution, are you a part of the problem? Comments from readers in the know would be appreciated.

Bottom line: this church is one that you should visit. Great architecture. A bitchin’ labyrinth. And, to top it off, it even had an official California Historical Landmark Marker! How can you lose?

Next on the agenda was a place that I had been looking forward to for quite some time: the First Building Erected in California by Masonic Lodge for Use as a Hall (Historical Landmark #174). This is the first Masonic hall built in California. It was begun in the summer of 1850, occupied by the lodge October 14, 1850, and formally dedicated December 27, 1850. This building served as the Masonic Temple for Benicia Lodge No. 5 until 1888, when the new temple was occupied. Used as a boys’ club prior to World War I and by the American Legion shortly after the war, it was reacquired by Benicia Lodge #5 in 1950.

Why, you might ask, was I so interested in seeing this place? Well, there is some backstory. When I was growing up, my father, William H. Monsen, had been an active member of the Masons, the Shriners, and heaven only knows what other types of fraternal organizations. He was, in fact, the Worshipful Master of Castro Valley Masonic Lodge #551 in either the late 1960s or the early 1970s. My uncle, Frank Diehl, was also the Worshipful Master of the same lodge. As spawn of a member of the Lodge that was progressing toward becoming Worshipful Master, our family (i.e., Mom and the 6 kids), got to attend numerous annual Installations, where new officers of the Lodge were installed. I made the mistake of bringing my girlfriend at the time and another friend to one of these events. When the antics started (e.g.., men prancing about in tuxedos with while wearing white loin clothes bearing obscure inscriptions, a dude wielding a sword, people walking solemnly from stations in the east to stations in the west, etc.), it was all Colleen and Jim could do to keep from howling out in shock and amazement. I had seen the scene before, so I was a little numbed and ready for it. The others were not. At one point, they had to put their heads between their legs to keep from bursting out laughing when the assembled mass celebrated the new officers with a “powerful battery of 3 by 3” (i.e., clap 3 times in a diagonal motion with your right hand above your left, 3 more times with your left hand above your right, and then 3 more times with your right hand above your left.)

As you can see, Freemasonry had a major influence on me as a youth and now it was time to visit where it all started in the Golden State. The building itself wasn’t ornate or mysterious in any way. It was nicely painted and had that weird symbol of Freemasonry (the divider and square with a capital “G” in the middle) on the front. However, there were not events happening when we were there, so Gail didn’t get to see any of the Freemason hijinx. Even so, it is worth a trip to see this place, especially since it is smack dab in the middle of downtown Benicia and you would have to work pretty hard to NOT see it.

Even though I wanted to hang out for a while longer at the Masonic Hall, Gail wanted to keep the show on the road, as it were. So, we were now off to our next Landmark: the Site of the First Protestant Church (Historical Landmark #174). On April 15, 1849, the Reverend Sylvester Woodbridge, Jr., organized the first Presbyterian Church of Benicia, the first Protestant church established in California with an ordained resident pastor. The church was disbanded in 1875.

I had not mapped out our route for these Landmarks and, as a result, we had to do some cruising around downtown to even find the park where the alleged Historical Landmark was to be found. It turns out that the book said that the marker was on K St. Unfortunately, as noted previously, the city fathers, using great vision and foresight, had given directions to each street (e.g., East K St., West K. St.) but didn’t bother to have just plain old K St. Thus, we had to do some amount of driving around before we found Benicia City Park, which is the location of this Landmark. When we finally found the park, there were the remnants of some sort of arts and crafts faire going on. We figured that we, in our bicycling duds, didn’t look any stranger than the locals with painted faces and native garb, so we plunged right in and found that Marker!

It is a little hard to get totally worked up about this kind of Historical Landmark, since there were no remnants of the church at the site. The park was pleasant enough. The funnel cakes certainly smelled good. So, on balance, if you can find the park, it is worth a brief visit. Oh, you can also walk your dog in the park.

One more to go. Even though Gail was grumbling about wanting to get some food, wanting to change her clothes, and just generally wanting to go home, I wanted to find that last Historical Landmark. I just knew it had to be close and so Gail gave in, we got back in the car, and started driving the mean streets of Benicia, in search of “City park, Military W St between 1st and 2nd Sts.”

Now, if you are puzzled by that last phrase in quotations, imagine our surprise when we found out that that was the address of our last goal: the Benicia Seminary (Historical Landmark #795). Remember my rant about how the streets in Benicia have directions? Well, it isn’t just the lettered streets that have directions: it is the numbered streets, too! However, the “directions” have to do not with the direction that the street is running (since the “letters” and the “numbers” cross, as happens in many cities, such as Hayward). The “direction” has to do with whether the street or road is on the east or the west side of 1st Street! I didn’t realize that until I started writing this post. It still doesn’t make any sense to me but at least I now know why the streets and avenues are named as they are.

We drove around the park where we had just been (which was bordered by Military W), thinking that there had to be another park. Perhaps it was between E. 1st and E. 2nd? No park there. So, finally it dawned on us that the “City park” in the address was the park that we had just been in! Luckily, nobody had taken our previous parking space, we parked, and set out looking for the Historical Landmark.

We were pretty keen on finding this one. Founded in 1852 as the Young Ladies’ Seminary of Benicia, Mills College was acquired from Mary Atkins by Cyrus and Susan Mills in 1865 and moved to its present site in Oakland in 1871. It was chartered as a college by the State of California in 1885. So, not only were we looking for a seminary, we were looking for the original home of Mills College! With that in mind, we started wandering around the park, looking for a Marker. Because the arts and crafts fair was still going on, we had the sick feeling that the Marker might be located inside (or under) one of the booths, which would have meant that we were going to have to ask each and every vendor to allow us to check out the grass under their booth. Gail was not happy about this. She was not happy that we were still wandering around after several hours of hunting Historical Landmarks. She wanted this day to be DONE and quickly, thank you very much! I, on the other hand, was being the persistent Norseman that my father was and was going to keep looking for that stupid Marker until we had searched the entire park or we died trying. It looked like a blow-up was imminent when, to our amazement, we found the Marker! Sweet Mary and Joseph, were we happy. Let’s take a photo and get out of here.I took out the camera, started to line up the shot, when the camera shut down.

Huh? Had I pushed the on-off button by mistake? I turned the camera on again, started to frame the shot, and the camera shut down again. The batteries were dying! We weren’t going to get the shot, which meant that we would either have to come back to Benicia (not an altogether bad option) or somehow get the photo before the camera shut down again. We framed the shot, turned on the camera, and pushed the shutter button. The camera shut down. We tried it again. The camera shut down.

At that point, we had no idea if the camera had taken the picture or not and we couldn’t even preview the photos, since the battery was so dead. We would have to wait until we got home and recharged the battery before we would know if we had got the shot. (As you can see, we did, in fact, get the picture, to the great relief of all involved).

As noted above, there isn’t anything in this park (other than the Historic Marker) that demonstrates that Mills College had once been here. However, it is pretty cool to know that it had been here, right next to the first Protestant Church. So, for that reason alone, stop by and visit. Just remember to charge your camera’s battery before you go.

If you want to see all of our photos from the events of the day, click here.