California's Highway 17 snakes it's way from South San Jose over the mountains to the town of Santa Cruz on the Pacific Coast. Blind corners, narrow shoulders and aggressive driving make this one of the most dangerous highways in the state. In a car it's nerve wracking, on a bicycle it would be suicidal.
Over the years I've made significant decisions while riding my bike. In the mix of enlightenment and clarity that come with riding are many stunts and blunders worth sharing. I held a USCF(4) license for most of the 80s and managed to complete roughly 100 races over those years. In my quest to be a winning rider I always managed to align myself with riders way above my ability. They pushed me, dropped me, and on occasion used my size in the last 100m of a race.
In the Spring of 1987 I was training for what turned out to be my longest and busiest season. One particular Saturday I found myself with the usual group of 7-8 riders that I trained with and we headed out for a five hour, 75 mile, fast paced – no waiting – no excuses – hammer session.
The route was to follow Campbell/Almaden/Santa Teresa/UVAS/152/Redwood Retreat/Mt Madonna/Summit/9/Saratoga/Los Gatos/Campbell. Looks easy on a map, it's fun to type the story out while sitting in a leather chair, just a little session with the boys and if I got dropped? so what.... you know what I mean if you know this area. Apple orchards, farms, two-lane roads, little markets and fresh ocean air. We were in a tidy but quiet pace line all the way to 152. The group was mainly Cat 1s & 2s, a couple of 3s and me – a 4.
The quick riders pushed it until we hit Redwood Retreat which is the straightest and steepest road outside of San Francisco that I've ridden. I was buried with an 11-21 cog set and suddenly way out of my league. I looked up to see only blue sky surrounded by redwoods that would eventually outlive me. I was barely hanging on. Redwood Retreat is a wall and I blew apart. We regrouped on Mt Madonna Rd. and pushed towards Summit – then pssssspheeew I FLATTED.
The boys waited while I changed the flat but I knew I was done. As we pulled away I assured the group that I would hang on but don't expect any miracles (aka drafting me). I dragged my butt up Summit and longed to see the Highway 9 to Saratoga sign and the effortless descent to town.
As we all regrouped at Summit & 17 N the finish-time analysis began to be debated out loud. Two hours left... lets keep the pace at 18mph (I snickered)... "he'll hang on".... I urged the group to go ahead without me.... "no we'll finish together"... all the time the surge of 17N was rushing underneath us.
And then I said it, "let's take 17 – it's six miles maybe 10 min to Los Gatos." Silence. I pointed the bike towards 17N and said "C'mon I'll drive and make up for the flat tire. I was half kidding and assumed I would roll gently home on Summit (70 mile option) as I had so many times before. But I underestimated the value I offered to the others as a big rider, in a 53x11, one that played lead out man a dozen times for these guys in the Twilight Criteriums in Fremont. A moment's pause and 2 or 3 riders waved goodbye (editor: perhaps for good) and took the Summit option to Saratoga. Four of us rode towards 17N with a plan.
Oh, the plan... biggest gear, no brakes, don't get dropped. A shout of GO-GO-GO-GO and it was on. Four very high mileage road junkies with a combined strength and a common desire to get off of the bike as soon as possible. We plummeted down 17 from Summit Rd. It was mid day on a Spring Saturday, we were doing 40-45mph, but the cars flashed by us.
GO-GO-GO-GO was the whip and I drove the group down that hill only to be reminded along the way that 17 has a very rough combed surface designed to disperse water quickly, the shoulder comes and goes, there is an occasional uphill, and the old common worker bee of 17 - the sand truck. He caught us... drove us from behind... barking at us with his Jake Brake the unmistakable sound of a CAT Diesel. If you've seen the movie Duel you'll get the sound and picture.
We were all standing up in our 126" gears with a new found energy, burying ourselves on the stupidest shortcut of all time... the Sand Truck doing the worst imitation of a team car. God bless the Engineer that reintroduced a shoulder near Lexington Reservoir.
We regrouped for the final one mile push to Los Gatos... we wound it back up...and ripped down again at 45mph without a shoulder. The exit to town is across the road to the left and we didn't want to push our luck so we continued up to the Los Gatos/Saratoga 9 exit and rolled slowly back to Campbell. That 6 miles felt like 50 but we did it, and I'm here to tell the tale.
Stupidest thing I've ever done on a road bike.