Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Journey to the Top of the Mountain

Things happen for strange reasons sometimes.  In this case, nothing has happened yet, but something is brewing.

I hate Journey, the rock group.  Steve Perry's voice makes my skin crawl and Journey songs embed themselves in my brain, refusing to leave.  This is a well-developed and deeply ingrained dislike that I've nurtured since the late 1970s.  I detest Journey so much that recently I had to leave my daughter's talent show when a bunch of middle-schoolers took the stage to perform Don't Stop Believin'.  (Be patient, there's a cycling segue here somewhere...)

So, one day, my wife and I took our daughter shoe shopping.  Wouldn't you know it, Journey's greatest hits blared from shoe store's speakers.  I couldn't stand it and escaped to Wheels of Justice, a bike shop two store fronts away.  Wheels of Justice isn't so hot, but it was much better than a shoe store filled with Perry's screeching.  As I browsed, I saw a copy of John Summerson's The Complete Guide to Climbing (by bike) in California (Extreme Press, 2010).  I flipped through it for a few minutes, and found it full of narrative and statistical climb descriptions, charts, and climb ratings and rankings. All that looked good, so I bought it.

Summerson rates climbs using the system race organizers use that relies of gradient, length, and altitude.  He rates the listed climbs from Category 3 (easiest) to 1 (hardest) to hors categorie (unrateably hard).  My favorite section of the book lists 100 most difficult road bike climbs in California (p.160).  I've ridden seriously for 23 years and in the last five years completed 15 double centuries.  Some of the doubles took me over the longest and steepest climbs in the state, or so I thought.  Not quite.  Apparently, during all my years of serious cycling, I've climbed just 12 of 100 most difficult climbs.  Two of these -- Highway 74 and Tramway Road in Palm Springs -- I conquered by dumb luck, as I rode them while visiting my father in law.  While imposing, I'd never rate these as 68th and 83 hardest climbs in the state.  Yet there they are on the list.  Others seem to be underrated or missing.  Howell Mountain is a notorious Lake County leg-breaker, but apparently it is not long enough for inclusion in the top 100, though the author lists it elsewhere and thinks it merits a 1.09 rating (cat.1/2).  Skaggs Road, Sonoma County's famed beast is absent altogether, as is Euclid/Spruce to Grizzly climbs that take a rider from the flats of Berkeley to the top of Berkeley Hills over a distance of 7-8 miles.  Also absent is another part of Skaggs Road, the "Rancheria Wall," a 2-mile long 12-14% killer of a climb that hits you at mile 135 of Terrible Two double century.  And don't get me started on Thornhill, Broadway Terrace, Snake, Ascot, South Park, Centennial, Carisbrook, Keller, Redwood, and other direct routes into Oakland and Berkeley hills.

The book's faults aside, it's a fascinating compilation.  And, of course, now I want to ride some of the other top 100.  Incredibly, the hardest climb I've done is only 45th-ranked east side of Monitor Pass (rating 2.33, cat. 1).  There are 44 harder climbs.  Some I don't even want to consider: Mix Canyon, for example:  four miles at 10%; mile 2.8 to 3.3 is 16.2% and mile 2.8 to 3.8 is 15.8%.  That's one mile at the same grade as the top of Mt. Diablo, which is just one-tenth of a mile and is plenty hard at that distance.  And there's another three miles of Mix Canyon, and that's no picnic, I'm sure.  But because Mix is relatively short and at a low altitude, it's only the 43d hardest climb in California, just two places above Monitor.  Monitor is quite fresh in my memory.  I suffered on it for good 50 minutes just three months ago, but I have a feeling Mix Canyon will leave a rider in more pain than Monitor.  That said, I have ridden up nearly 30% grades of Marin Street in Berkeley, though that was on a bike with a 26x26 low gear...

Anyway, I've gotten quite involved in all this analysis and really want to ride these climbs.  Plotting and planning all this riding isn't easy, as all the climbs I haven't done are driving distance away and I don't like driving for rides.

But isn't it funny how things happen?  My dislike of Journey leads to purchase of a book that leads to serious ride planning.  I guess it's a good thing I hate Journey and that the shoe store was playing the CD that morning.