"Nah," I growled. "It's just, eh. What's the point?"
What's the point? Trying to clean a steep climb is fun, and it's important training for strength. I've become too lazy about hard efforts, I recently realized. There was a once a time when I would ride a singlespeed up steep climbs until it felt like my abs might rip apart; now I step off my bike as soon as my legs start to feel the slightest lactic acid burn. Last year, when I was either preparing for or participating in three big multi-day efforts, I developed a tendency toward "Forever Pace" all of the time. I needed to save my energy and strength for the next day, and the next, and the next, for most of a year. I could never go all out. It's important to be conservative during a 21-day bike adventure, but this "save your legs" strategy is not so good for training.
So I had time and motivation. Even still, I lost heart during the Limekiln Trail climb that mountain bikers refer to as "Overgrown," especially after I started spinning out on dry leaves that kicked up clouds of dust. The trail-work guy in the front end loader warned me that they'd been pulling out massive patches of poison oak, and all I could think about was poison oak dust lodging in my lungs, which only recently finally healed from the Fat Pursuit.
I justified walking, but I did not feel good about it. By the time I hit the rolling traverse, my progress was behind schedule and I considered turning around. But no — no surrender. I could clean this thing. Even if some of the steeper pitches had me riding and 2.8 mph and I can walk at 2.5 — no, riding is still faster. I commenced mashing pedals. The next three miles were all hard breathing and occasional grunting, but I made it the rest of the way to the top of Sierra Azul without putting a foot down.
And even though the Woods Trail resembled one of those runaway truck ramps — 25-percent grades and shin-deep gravel — and even though descending it on a bike was like wrestling someone in tub of marbles, and even though there were still several rolling climbs that I had conveniently forgotten about ... I still made it back to the dealership by 5:38 p.m. Twenty-two minutes to spare. Victory.
We planned to ride the Steven's Creek Canyon loop, and I was plodding up the hill. By the time I reached the gate on Montebello road, Beat said, "I've been waiting here for a while." I looked at my watch. "Yeah, I'm sure you have because it's been an hour and twenty minutes. I don't think it's ever taken me that long to get here." Personal worst. Thanks, Snoots.
We looped around the Bella Vista Trail and started down the canyon, where Beat stopped at the Indian Creek intersection. "Should we go this way instead?" he asked, pointing up the hill with a sly smile. Let's see, descend fun canyon trail, or climb up a steep fireroad back to the top of Black Mountain?
"Let's do it!" I said. "I might have to walk most of it. But I should try to ride the whole thing. Don't hold me to it, but I'm going to try."
Indian Creek is tough not because it climbs 1,000 feet of loose gravel in 1.5 miles, but because it does so on a series of gut-bustingly steep pitches broken by tiny descents rather than a nice, even grade. It's tough to ride clean on a light mountain bike with aggressive tires, let alone an expedition fat bike with snow tires. But it had to be done. The success of my Alaska coast expedition was at stake.
I followed closely behind Beat, grinding the pedals. A few times the rear tire started spinning in place, and my heart skipped a few beats. "No dabs, no dabs, don't stall" I chanted in my head. A few solid pedal mashes helped me break free, and I continued up the hill, saturated in rich afternoon light as I breathed fire.
About three-quarters of the way up, I ended up on the wrong side of a deep rut. There was no way around, and I didn't believe there was any way to ride over that rut and clear it. This was the end. My leg muscles were already spinning on fumes. But I had to at least try. I stood out of the saddle just long enough to jump-start the surge, and mashed as hard as I could. I weakly hoisted the front wheel over the rut and spun furiously to propel the rear wheel out of the narrow hole. Astonishingly, I made it, and rode the soaring sense of satisfaction to a seemingly effortless climb to the top. No dabs Indian Creek! Victory!
"See, you can do it when you try," Beat said. I hope so, because I only have six more weeks to train.