Monday, October 07, 2013

Day touring the Diablo Range

You know what I really love? Bike touring!

Sure, purists will argue that unless a cyclist has camping gear strapped to their frame, or at least plans to spend one whole night away from their own bed, their ride is not a tour. But the way I look at it, bicycles are the ideal exploration vehicle, and any ride conducted with exploration in mind takes on the best characteristics of a bike tour: gawking at scenery, connecting geographic puzzles, snacking on potato chips and purple Gatorade on a weathered picnic table in front of some tiny backroad bar. "Day touring" is also a great way to cover some new ground relatively close to home, that one might overlook if planning a longer trip.

Just a few weeks after his double 200-milers in Europe, Beat was already jonesing for a long trail run, so he signed up for the Diablo 50K on Saturday. I was emphatically not interested in running 50 kilometers so soon after being severely ground down by my own Alpine adventures. However, I saw an opportunity to embark on a ride I've wanted to try for more than a year now — linking up the two most prominent mountains in the East Bay — Mount Diablo (3,864 feet) and Mount Hamilton (4,196 feet.) It's difficult to do this without riding at least 100 miles, so I took advantage of the one-way opportunity. With little prior experience in most of that area, I solicited the help of Strava Route Builder to design a route. In a matter of minutes and just a few clicks, I had a map linking "Strava preferred" popular cycling segments, as well as the total distance, elevation profile, and even the estimated moving time based on my own past cycling stats, along with a .gpx track to load onto my Garmin eTrex. The ease and usefulness of this tool is impressive. I have been a Strava skeptic in the past, but with this tool I am fully on board. Well done, Strava.

Several friends were also running the Diablo 50K, including Jochen who was visiting with his wife and baby after moving to Shanghai a couple of years ago. Beat and I headed out the night before to visit our friend Steve and spent the night at his mom's house in Concord to avoid the long drive first thing in the morning. There were several other familiar faces at the race start — quite the early-morning social gathering. Once there, I was filled with FOMO about not running this race —perhaps a good sign that I'm turning around on my resolve to quit trail running and maybe even endurance racing altogether. (Ha ha, not really. Mostly.)

But once I got on the road, regret about skipping the race dissolved into stoke about the flow and ease of two wheels rolling on pavement. I had a lot of new ground to cover and was excited about the possibilities.

There was a big wildfire on Diablo one month ago, and the scars across the hillsides were still fresh. I caught up with several runners at road crossings, including Steve, but just missed seeing Beat. The summit museum was closed for construction, and vehicle traffic was almost nonexistent. Just a solid climbing grade, a blood-pumping effort, and sweeping views. Pure bikey bliss.

As expected, the daytime heat started cranking around 10 a.m. The weather forecast called for temperatures in the mid- to high-80s in the valley, and the air often feels at least 10 degrees warmer in the breezeless oven of these Diablo Range canyons. Beads of sweat formed on my skin even at reasonable biking speeds, and I started to feel grumpy about the prospect of cooking in the sun all day long. However, for nontechnical bike tours I have become fairly good at willfully ignoring minor physical discomforts — thanks to a well-tuned autopilot mode. By the time I descended from yellow rolling hills and farmland of south Diablo into the town of Livermore, I was "in the zone" deep enough that a red traffic light was a jarring sight.

Beyond Livermore was the big unknown — fifty miles of two relatively remote backroads through the heart of this small mountain range. I expected typical California secondary road construction — steep grades, narrow sweepers, hairpin curves, and no shoulder. This road was exactly that, but with the noticeable and almost complete absence of vehicular traffic. There's really just nothing out there for people to drive to — a few ranches, and that's about it. On a Saturday afternoon, I saw about ten cyclists — all in the first five miles — and more motorcycles, perhaps two dozen. Maybe five cars and trucks? In fifty miles of pavement located in close proximity to a metropolis of 7 million people. The road climbed to about 2,000 feet elevation and snaked through a narrow canyon for miles of rolling climbs and descents, swooping curves, and more empty vistas. Road cycling has its pros and cons, but pedaling a winding, open stretch of pavement at full throttle is as close to the sensation of flying as I've experienced. Pure bikey bliss.

The little discomforts did start to stack up, though. My senses were now fully engaged in the excitement of "discovery mode" and thus sharp enough to highlight nagging pains. I left Livermore with three liters of water, but started rationing early when I drank half of my supply before I even hit the top of the ridge. I had some beta that there was a small bar at a road junction leading out to the Central Valley, about 35 miles from Livermore, but had no idea if it was open and didn't feel comfortable relying on it. The air was stiflingly still at climbing speeds, the heat burned straight into my core, and the little sips of tepid water did almost nothing to quench my thirst. Also, I just haven't put in much time in the saddle this summer, and my out-of-shape lower back muscles were sore and spasming. Happily, a little bar called "The Junction" — probably the only service establishment in a 30-mile radius — was open with a few items for sale. The rehydration break did wonders for my deteriorating mood.

But my back soreness was only getting worse, to the point where I did a bicycle version of "downward dog" anytime I had a chance to coast for a while. The legs finally chimed in with "we're tired and done" right when I came to the crux of the whole ride — the climb up East Hamilton. Thanks to a couple of steep rollers it gains nearly 3,000 feet in a scant five miles — a steep lung-buster that would probably be fun with zero-mile legs, but is decidedly crushing on 95-mile legs. A cloud of bickering filled my head. The legs and back said, "We want to walk." I said, "No, this is a road ride. We can't walk." The stomach said, "This is stupid. I want ice cream. And a Slurpee." I couldn't argue with that. But my legs were in near revolt and my lower back was twitching painfully, so I made a deal. "Next bend, we'll walk." Then stomach chimed in. "Walking's too slow. It will take too long. I want a cold drink. And ice cream. Don't be such a pansy." I couldn't argue with that. The legs and back continued to mount protests any time I rounded another bend and didn't stop, but I didn't stop.

The trip odometer clicked over to 100 miles right when I crested 4,200 feet and caught sight of the big white domes of the observatory. Victory! I had conquered Mount Hamilton! The summit came in a rush of relief and satisfaction because I had nearly crushed myself to get there — dizzy, aching, hungry, thirsty, but immensely happy. I often don't dig that deep even when I'm racing, but it felt especially rewarding in this context — a meaningless little victory, but it mattered to me.

I had to resort to stiff, brake-throttling coasting down the first miles of the descent just to recover from the shattering climb, all while stuffing my face with jelly beans because I had really let my blood sugar crash. But once my legs came back around I felt surprisingly strong — proof yet again that the feeling of being broken is usually a wrong assumption pushed by the mind in moments of weakness. The 18 miles down into the Santa Clara Valley followed by 18 "commuter" miles across San Jose passed in what felt like a few minutes. Strava even took me on a pleasant route through the city, following quiet neighborhood streets and connector roads with wide bike lanes. Thanks Strava! Final stats were 135 miles with 11,159 feet of climbing, and 10:16 moving time (Strava estimated 10:09 — impressive accuracy.)

Beat finished his 50K, which had 8,000 feet of climbing and was just as hot, in 6:50. He was fifth overall. And felt good. Of course. He seems to have discovered the secret to near-endless endurance, which I'm still trying to crack.

Now that I've discovered this route building tool, I'm excited about the prospect of designing more new-to-me bike tours and local link-ups. Next up, I'm thinking "A hundred miles of Santa Cruz Mountains" mountain bike tour. Oh, the possibilities. 


  1. A mountain bike tour sounds great. Will it bring you reminders of the massive undertaking you excelled in on the Great Divide. It really is nice to see you back on your bike. I can't wait until you move back to Alaska and share your snow biking experiences, they were so motivating. That's what you are, I motivational person with your adventures and you words.

  2. I saw your ride on Strava and was instantly impressed. When I lived in SJ I never managed to link up the big three. I tried to fit in Tam, Diablo and Hamilton in one day (driving between them) but had to give up on the way down Diablo when the freezing rain started and I was shaking so much that I had trouble keeping the bike on the road. Linking the three up as a one-way ride would be fantastic. Off to routebuilder....

  3. Delightful trip report and internal debate.
    I look forward to checking out Strava.

  4. A cyclist named Chris Evans, the guy who gave me the beta on The Junction bar, nearly rode all three in a day. It sounded like the section north of San Pablo Bay was a freeway slog and not fun, and to do the whole thing starting at the Golden Gate Bridge and ending in San Jose one way would probably run somewhere in the range of 180 mies. But all three mountains is another intriguing "someday" project. I think if you're going to go that far, you might as well just figure out a way to incorporate Black Mountain and make it a loop. Or Mount Umunhum, but I'm not entirely sure that one is even accessible by bike.

    Chris's three-mountain ride:

  5. count me in for 100 single track miles...but can we camp halfway through? ;)

  6. Sorry Leah, my hundred-mile route will contain no illegal or off-limits-to-bikes trails, and thus a lot of fireroad and some pavement connectors. ;) But I would try to incorporate as much singletrack as possible. I have some ideas. Even just connecting Purisma Creek Redwoods to Santa Cruz trails via Skeggs, Skyline, and Big Basin has a lot of cool possibilities.

  7. "You know what I really love? Bike touring!"

    Now you're talkin'!

  8. You should have tried the pulled pork sandwich at The Junction. It propelled me three years ago on similar route in opposite direction. Nice ride! I always thought Hamilton from the back side would be brutal.

  9. Well done! You're well on the way to having fun, but still having an adventure-atrue win-win.
    And never mind about purists, or what "they" say. There are naysayers every time you turn around. Adapt it for your specific needs/wants.
    Brush up on your Spanish....😃

  10. Jill, for the comfort to your back and other sensitive body parts plus a wide open view, you'd love a recumbent. I know they aren't a real bike to some and they are slower up hills, but forcomfort and fun over long distance rides, your body will thank you.

    The only thing that hurts at the end of a long distance ride are my smile muscles. :)

  11. YAY! Jill is back on a bike!

  12. yes Jill, Mt. Um is actually off limits to bikes and everyone else, with several locked gates, and is patrolled.

    I looked at your proposed SC Mnts route on your twitter page, and noticed on the route through Purisima creek osp has it going on the Craig Britton trail which is hiking only. Thats the one that connects Purisima creek trail and Whittmore gulch. You would need to just skip that and go down Purisima creek trail all the way down to Harkins Purisima road.
    Tom C

  13. correction: Higgins Purisima road

  14. Hi Jill,

    Did you post an "upcoming and omg I'm doing this" calendar or list anywhere?

    Would be fun to see what's on the horizon.

  15. The backside of Hamilton is TOUGH! What a great ride you had.

    We do the Mines Rd out and back to the Junction pretty regularly and it's a beautiful ride. The junction actually has pretty good lunch options

  16. I used to live on the San Jose/Campbell border and made it up Mt. Umunum once when the snow levels were down around 1000'. A friend and I didn't happen to see any "DO NOT CONTINUE" signs on the way up. We kept going up to the giant fenced off golf ball. Never saw anyone and really regretted the trip when we struggled to make our way back down the snowy slick streets on our road bikes with their reduced stopping power.

    Great views though.


Feedback is always appreciated!