Feeling tired from Thursday's effort on Sierra Road, I still hadn't decided today's ride even as I packed the car. A week ago the plan was to wrap up the series with a big ride on the 30th, but after the punishing Thanksgiving climb I started to think a longer ride Saturday and an easy "parade" lap Sunday was a better option. My friend Brendan who's shared so many miles with me, was up for anything and Juli was coming along to shoot whatever we got ourselves into. Unsure whether I had the legs for it I found myself packing enough kit and food for a 65 mile/6000 foot journey down Mines Road.
Mines Road leaves Livermore California and winds its way through the canyons of the Diablo range, later becoming San Antonio Valley Road/Hwy 130 whereafter it climbs Mt. Hamilton to the Lick Observatory (elevation 4213 ft) before descending to the Eastern fringes of San Jose. Mines Road is remote, wild and beautiful. It sees very little traffic and it's not uncommon to ride its entire 46 mile length and see less than a dozen cars. Stage Three of this year's Tour of California followed many of these miles including the KOM/HC climb of Mt. Hamilton (unbelievably they then descended to San Jose and climbed Sierra Road).
As we drove towards Livermore at 8 am the Western flanks of the Diablo range were shrouded in low lying cloud yet below the cloud we could see a sliver of light hinting at brighter skies on the other side. By the time we arrived at the junction of Tesla and Mines Road we found ourselves in brilliant sunshine and crisp morning air; the quintessential fall day.
A group of six or seven cyclists had the same idea. As we got the bikes off the car, they clipped in and started down the road, probably a little annoyed at the prospect of sharing the wild seclusion of Mines before it had even begun. We took our time getting ready to give them a little breathing room.
The first five or six miles of Mines road wind through lowland orchards, farms and vineyards before forking left to climb gradually into the golden oak-studded hills. Brendan and I rode side-by-side and soon passed the rear marker from the group that left ahead of us. In the next few miles we slipped by another two or three, said hello and went on our way. At the top, per our plan, Brendan joined Juli in the car (he's a couple of weeks away from that procedure of his and needs to keep his riding low key). I know he wanted to keep going but he'd be back on the road with me for the last 20 miles.
From that point I was on my own to the top of Mt. Hamilton... perhaps a little shy of the distance and elevation of a Continental ride, but certainly cut from epic cloth. The road has everything but gravel, fast twisting downhills, short sharp climbs, and mile after mile of pristine wilderness. At times it feels like you're on some hidden track in Yosemite... minus the support car and photographer of course.
Eventually our touring company reached the Junction Cafe, the only oasis for food, drinks or stamps around these parts. The place still feels a little like a stage coach stop. Juli disappeared inside and came back with deli sandwiches and fries. Brendan laughed and exclaimed "this is an easy ride" I settled for a Gatorade and a ProBar (and a couple of fries) and hit the road. Juli and Brendan hung on at the Junction for a bit to chow down on the sandwiches.
Ten miles of rollers punctuated by cattle guards and warning signs peppered with bullet holes brought me to the foot of the Mt. Hamilton climb. It's five tortuous miles from this point to the Lick Observatory telescopes and the summit. Juli and Brendan caught up just in time to see me start the grind, giving me an opportunity to lose my helmet. There's no one out here and I'm lucky if I'll be going 6 mph. The only danger is going so slow I fall over.
I was sweating buckets within a few switchbacks. I tried not to look up where the ribbon of road cut back and forth across the mountain like garland on a Christmas tree. The first two miles of the ascent were the worst; steep and out in the sun. I approached Juli shooting at the side of the road and she asked me to get out the saddle, I managed to accelerate for twenty yards and immediately redlined. It took me two minutes to recover. My cadence got slower and slower. I sensed the car passing me, disappearing somewhere overhead. I was fighting the bike by this point and the bike was winning.
Two miles of climbing to go I hit a pitch that owned me. I made the next turn spotted the car and rolled to a stop, spent. I think I muttered one or two obscenities, got off the bike and sat on the road with a water alternatively drinking it and pouring it over my head. In a few minutes I was feeling better. I ate a Grab the Gold bar and chugged water. Amazing what a difference a break makes on a climb like this even though I wished I'd had the legs to ride it straight through.
With a helping push from Juli I got back to my suffering. A few turns later the road finally emerged on the Southern flank of the mountain, here the grade eased and I spotted the one mile to go marker. I knew I had the climb licked... the last half mile is pretty flat.
I stopped for one last time at the Observatory, where Brendan got back on the bike for the 19-mile descent (with two small climbs) into San Jose. As usual he was smooth and relaxed on the tight technical turns that define the first seven miles down, I just did my best to follow his lead and stay close.
Just as we crested the last small climb to overlook the city Santa Clara County delivered an unexpected present. It seems in the intervening months since we last climbed Mt. Hamilton they've repaved this section of road, and I'm not talking about the usual chip and seal treatment that rural roads seem to get. This was the real deal. Five miles of perfect, flawless asphalt that must have been laid down by a road crew out to impress their friends. Even when the road surface was lousy this was one of the best descents in the bay area. Good sight lines, long straight aways, wide sweeping turns and few driveways to inhibit your speed. That was then. The road is now an amusement ride, with the right gearing 50 mph is there for the taking.
We flew down those last few miles. Both of us would happily have driven to the top to do it again if we had the time. What a fantastic end to an idyllic, grueling gut-check of a day.