Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best of 2013

"Where did you go to, if I may ask?' said Thorin to Gandalf as they rode along.
To look ahead,' said he.
And what brought you back in the nick of time?'
Looking behind,' said he."
   - JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit.
And so, I'm both looking behind and looking ahead as 2013 fades with the daylight and 2014 arrives at the door. 2013 was a rather good cycling year for me. I discovered many wonderful (and not very well known) remote mountain roads to get lost on, found many new cycling friends to share sweat and pain with. My now nearly two years old aluminum road bike is still consenting to put up with me most of the time (and when it didn't, at least it didn't protest too loudly at me getting back on while covered in dirt and blood and other icky things that didn't add to both our look).

Looking back at 2013 on the bike...

Favorite roads:
1. Camino del Aguilar up Starvation Mountain: What can I say? It's scenic beyond belief, insanely steep for most of the way and no traffic at all to speak of. If only I live closer to Poway or Escondido I'd be riding that thing every week!
2. Millar Ranch & Miller Ranch Rds up Mt San Miguel: Another beastly climb with heavenly view and no traffic at all. A real mountain right on the outskirt of the city!
3. Montezuma Valley Rd (Montezuma Grade or hwy S22): Arguably the most scenic stretch of highway in San Diego County, and a great cat 1 climb to boot. Alas, it's quite far away from me even when taking public transportation part of the way, so I don't get to enjoy it often. And it's way too hot to attempt for much of the year. Winter is a great time to buzz up and down the Glass Elevator and visit Borrego Springs, though.
4. Harris Trail - De Luz Heights - Joan Ln - Cathy Ln variation from De Luz Rd: A lot of people ride the De Luz loop, but not many venture into the little gem that is De Luz Heights! From south to north this string of narrow country lanes is a scenic delight. From the opposite direction, a chain-stretching quads & lungs busting twisty series of all-too-vertical walls that makes your bike wish it's a goat.
5: Old Julian Hwy from Santa Ysabel to Ramona: Compared to the others on this list, this is a gentle climb when heading east and a lovely curvy descent when heading west. Gorgeous views along the way with lots of exotic animals sighting opportunities!

Favorite views:
Camino del Aguilar on Starvation Mountain.
Eagle Rock off PCT and Camino San Ignacio on Hot Springs Mountain.
The view west from the top of Mt Woodson.
Twisty Miller Ranch Rd winding its way up San Miguel Mtn.
Daily Rd & De Luz Heights view from Joan Lane.

Favorite San Diego weekend cycling groups:
1. Team Fun (sponsored by Carbon Connection Cyclery in Carlsbad): Rides start and finish at Carbon Connection Cyclery in Carlsbad. Usually starting at 8am Saturday or Sunday. This is an all-girls ride, but sometimes nice guys are welcome. The fast group goes really fast (20+ mph on the flat) and do challenging routes in the 40-60 miles range. Intermediate group go at a less taxing pace (around 15 mph) at 30-50 miles or so. The beginners group is 'no drop' and usually stay along the coast.
What could be more FUN than going riding on Saturday morning???
Team Fun is, well, fun! I like riding with them so much I'd ride 35-42 miles to Carlsbad in the ungodly early hours of Saturday mornings just to join them for a while before riding home. Great rando training for me. A 200km brevet every Saturday!

2. Sunday Road Riders (sponsored by Cal Coast Bicycles in University Heights): Rides start at 8am Sundays at Cal Coast Bicycle, whether in one or two or three groups depends on group size.
No one left behind on Sunday Road Riders rides!
I don't know about the fast group, since Sundays are usually my 'recovery ride' day so I haven't gone with the fast crew yet, but the intermediate group here is really easy going and go at relatively easy pace. Rides are 'no drop' and non-competitive with varied routes. Great socializing opportunity while seeing the town!

3. LUNA Chix San Diego Cycle: Sponsored by LUNA bar with a mission to encourage women to outdoorsy activities to stay healthy, and to raise fund for the Breast Cancer Fund, the LUNA Chix is a team of wonderfully supportive gals who ride safely and take great care of all ride participants.

A little LUNA push makes the hill more manageable.
The LUNA Chix rides take place all over San Diego County. Each ride is well planned and (wo)manned and usually break into fast, intermediate and slow groups. All of which are 'no drop'. Ride leaders are well trained and great at keeping group together. An ideal group to go with whether you're just starting out (and can use a lot of coaching on ride safety, etiquette and even some basic bike maintenance) or for seasoned riders to go for a sportive but socially relaxed rides and make new friends.

Memorable Cycling Moments:
1.On one of my rides around De Luz I stopped for a snack break off the side of Harris Trail when a big branch in the tree nearby did a giant sway. I turned around and saw... this.
A home-building red-shouldered hawk???
I think I surprised him as much as he surprised me. For long seconds we just goggled in place at each other. I think he even contemplated saying hello, but decided to hold on to the good cushiony branch he had in his beak instead.

2. Zig-zagging my way very agonizingly slowly up the hideously steep trail to Lake San Marcos radio towers in 90F heat with all sort of curse words bouncing inside my overheated head, and finally cresting the final ramp only to find all view blocked by the radio tower complex.
Guess I should have looked at the view while I was climbing, but when the climbing is all 10-20% grade, looking around was easier said than done!
And then deciding to keep climbing on the Ridge Line Trail to Double Peak instead of descending... silly If you weren't already nuts before you took up cycling, start riding a lot of hill and the nuts becomes you!
Hippy & Chris on Hillside trail on Mt Soledad.
3. Not getting dropped by the Hippy Chris during his Rapha Rising Mt Soledad Madness ride (we did 8 ascents together before I called it a day. I think he continued for another 5 trips up the mountain). It wasn't because he couldn't drop me, mind you, but that he wouldn't... It really made me appreciate the really great riders. They are beyond the 'I've got to prove it to everyone that I'm much faster/stronger than they are' mentality and are comfortable riding just fast enough to be good company to lesser riders while challenging them to get stronger all at once.

4. Getting dropped by Team Fun advanced group about 25 miles into our ride somewhere in Rancho Santa Fe. It was great! I had spent much of the year being the big fish in small ponds, so to speak, and not pushing myself for more speed, so being tested beyond my limit every so often is a wonderful thing. The nice lasses will try to excuse my blowing halfway into a ride with the fact that I had had a 35 mile ride in before their ride began, but truth be told I don't think I could have held their pace for another 25 miles even if I had taken the Coaster in instead. Being able to hang with them at their pace for the entire ride is a goal I'm aspiring to for 2014, though. Considering how the lasses could do sub-5 hrs century (which they did at the Palm Desert Century just a short while ago), that's going to take quite some work!
Team Fun advanced crew speeding along Paseo Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe.
At any rate, the day turned out to be a 115 miler for me, and the last 10 miles of it was spent in much agony; it didn't help that gluttonous me had picked up 5 lbs of persimmons from the Leucadia Farmers' Market along the way and felt all the extra weight my favorite deadly sin gave me climbing home up Torrey Pines and Juan St in Old Town. My legs were noodly for a couple of days afterward, but the persimmons tasted great and there is nothing more invigorating than finding a cool bunch of stronger riders that are willing to let me tack along!

5. Climbing Palomar Mountain by unpaved Nate Harrison Grade and running into ice and snow 1000 ft from the top. It wasn't bravery that landed me in that plight, but the sheer lack of good sense! I had known about Nate Harrison Grade for a long while as the gnarliest route up Palomar Mtn. It being a dirt road and me only owning a road bike made the climb a bit dicey, though waking up way too early one winter morning I decided on a whim to have a go.
Twisty Nate Harrison Grade from about half way up.
And what a go it was! The thing is 10 miles long at 8.5% grade with a few 14% grade ramps thrown in and a rear-tire skidding fest. Skidding tire is hairy enough when climbing, but skidding and always sliding to the lower edge of the really narrow road doesn't do much for one's nerve. Then on one of the 14% ramp I couldn't correct the sliding and had to put the foot down. On that steep and loose a slope, that meant hiking-a-bike until the slope became more manageable - which was aggravating. And to add more angst to the testy experience there was this guy parked somewhere off the right side of the road shooting off his rifle I don't know at what. I just kept hearing the bangs and the sound of bullets whizzing through the air and got more and more miffed at my inability to climb faster up the slippery steep slope to get away from the trigger-happy maniac.
Had to make it to the top just because I really didn't want to go down Nate's dirt road on a pair of 25mm slick tires!
Then, of course, a bit past 4000 ft elevation I ran into the snowed in road... It was pretty, but it wasn't bikeable! More slippery hike-a-bike up the slope for a good mile before I saw bare ground again... But I got to the top and got to descend down wiggly South Grade Rd and took Hwy 76 down to Valley Center Rd where this nice farmer lady at the fruits stand sold me a huge bag of fuyu persimmons for only $2.
My persimmons goddess on Valley Center Rd!
There still is no god, but the fruits sure tasted great after all that laboring!

6. During one of my easy-going Sunday morning rides with the Sunday Road Riders we were stopped at the traffic light on Navajo Rd at Jackson Dr in San Carlos when an SUV with open windows rolled to a halt beside us. In it were a pleasant young lad and his friendly mom. A few of us exchanged hellos with them and the boy enthusiastically declared that it was his fourth birthday. At that the whole peloton of us cyclists broke into the happy birthday song that ended with a roaring cheer and lots of bell ringing by yours truly.
Beware of the singing peloton!
And had the light not turned green again we probably would have tried to add a round of 'For He's A Jolly Good Fellow!' in to boot! Of course, slow that I am I didn't catch the episode on film but hopefully the drivers that stopped around us would recall the flow of good will both from the boy and his mom and from the bunch of singing cyclists the next time they come upon a cyclist on the road. We are all neighbors... and most neighbors would try to help rather than to bite you!

7. Having my Jamul - Barrett exploration ride plan bombed by a cadre of local dogs who decided to escort me up Mother Grundy TT and refused to go home on their own!
Are you comin'? Are you comin'?
I'm still a cat person, but those dogs almost converted me!

So what am I looking ahead to for 2014? Doing a few proper rando brevets and permanents, of course, and more fun rides with good friends and meeting more wonderful people on the roads (friendly pedestrians and cheerful drivers included). Hopefully also getting to explore more unfamiliar roads in various corners of San Diego and even Riverside Counties.

Local roads (in no particular order) on my 2014 hit list:
- Cuyamaca Lookout Rd
- North Peak Rd
- Snuz Mountain Rd
- Muth Valley Rd (off Wildcat Canyon)
- Barrett Smith Rd (off Hwy 94 east of Barrett Junction)
- Rainbow Hgts - Rainbow Crest Rd - Mt Olympus Valley Rds (in Rainbow)
- Stewart Crest Rd (north side of Monserate Mtn)
- Red Mountain Hgts Dr (Fallbrook)
- Alta Loma Rd (Jamul)
- Shogo Mtn Rd (De Luz Heights)
- Lyons Peak Rd... is very iffy. Even park rangers can't access that road nowadays.

HAPPY NEW YEAR, everyone! Be safe and have fun on the roads!Cycling smileys

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Friendly Christmas Ride to Mt Helix

It is supposedly winter but America's Finest City has been stuck in Indian Summer Mode for almost two weeks now. It's quite unreal considering all the wintry weather wreaking havoc in much of the country!
Rolling thru La Mesa on Allison Ave.
Anyhow, a few friends and I decided to try to make extra stomach room for our Christmas feast by going off on a morning ride from Cal Coast Bicycles in University Heights to the top of Mt Helix on the eastern edge of La Mesa. It's only a 23 miler, but with a good climb in the middle. We plotted a route of least traffic east on Meade & Orange Aves and eventually made our uneventful way to University Ave into La Mesa in relatively sparse traffic. One of our numbers was having a hard time keeping up, though. He had been riding on 9 consecutive days and his legs were tired of being told, Jen Voigt style, to 'shut up'. By the time we made the turn from La Mesa Blvd to Jackson St he had had enough and decided to turn back, leaving our group of five survivors to deal with the day's featured climb.
Out of the saddle on Alto Dr's 1st steep ramp.
No rest for the wicked...
What a difference a year makes! Around this time a year ago I would be on my 2nd lowest gear and still found the first ramp on Lemon St to the intersection with Alto Dr quite testy. This time around it was just a good little burn on the 4th lowest gear. We (really essentially me, since I was the ride's guide. Hahaha) opted for the steeper ascent up Alto Dr rather than continuing on Lemon to Fuerte and Mt Helix Dr... A decision I suspect my friends would try to pay me back at a later date since a couple of them were on the standard rather than compact gear rings, not quite the nicest thing to deploy on Alto Dr's two 14% grade ramps.

Alto Dr past the switchback.
The gang at the crest of Alto Dr on Mt Helix.
We all made it to the road's crest after a while, though. It was gorgeously clear out and a few locals were out hiking with their family up and down the mountain. One came across us enjoying the view and kindly took our group foto.

It sure wasn't lonely at the top of Mt Helix on Christmas Day!
What a spectacularly clear day to be riding up Mt Helix! Once we got onto the Mt Helix Dr rings there was plenty of mountain vista to feast our eyes on. Quite a few other hikers and cyclists had the same idea as ours and the stone Nature Theater on top was being quite well visited.

Mt Woodson (the left peak with antennae on top) & Iron Mtn (the distinctive pyramidal right center peak) from top of Mt Helix.
Rolling home through downtown La Mesa.
Alas, I was too lazy to go walk around the Yawkey Trail to peruse all the info boards identifying all the mountain peaks you can see from the various spots along the path. I did get a good look of Mt Woodson and Iron Mountain from an unfamiliar side, though. We loitered around for a while, enjoying the visual & atmospheric fruits of our labor before turning back to town, this time straight through the endlessly cute downtown La Mesa. It wasn't a very taxing ride, with the Mt Helix climb (Lemon St - Alto Dr - Mt Helix Dr) being only about 1.7 mile with 6% average gradient (max. grade 14% on two short-ish stretches). Definitely a good start to Christmas!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday Road Riders Report: Lake Murray Loop (15 Dec 2013)

Although it's often very pleasant to sleep in on Sundays, I have a standing ride date with a group of awesome friends out of Cal Coast Bicycles in University Heights at 8am that trumps even the temptation to stay under the warm cover on a cold morning! The group is called the Sunday Road Riders, and it is open to all riders fast and slow, new and old to road cycling.

Rolling east on Adams Ave in Kensington.
Anyhow, this morning we didn't have many riders and so went out in one intermediate pace group instead of the usual three. Hugo, our intermediate group ride leader had came up with a new route to Lake Murray and back, which we were all eager to check it out. The ride started, as always, at Cal Coast Bicycles on Adams Ave just east of 30th St, of course. We rolled east on Adams to Aldine and shot down to the valley on Fairmount Ave.
Stretched out a bit down perilous Fairmount Ave descent.
The Blue Boys Josh & Rick in Allied Gardens.
Terri, Hugo & Mark in Allied Gardens.
After regrouping at the bottom, the group hooked right on Twain Rd and made our way up the gentle climbs through the side streets of Allied Gardens on our way to Navajo Rd. Traffic was pretty mild and the clearing sky gave quite a nice view of Cowles, Pyle and Kwaay Paay mountains as we climbed up to Park Ridge Blvd.
Ed, Adriana & Josh.
Mark M, Terri & Alex on Park Ridge Blvd.
Lake Murray from its northern tip.
Turning south on Park Ridge Blvd and then another side street detour for a safer crossing of Murray Park Dr brought us to beautiful Lake Murray, where we split off to have a bit of fun on the paved multi-use trail.
Tim & Alex on Lake Murray trail.
Terri on Lake Murray trail.
Josh & Rick.
Most of the gang minus Mark & Stephen (AKA the fast guys).
Not keen on taking a group through the usually busy (with hikers and joggers) lake trail, Hugo opted for a road detour around the lake via the much less trafficky Murray Park Dr, Lakeshore Dr/Baltimore Dr and Lake Murray Blvd. We briefly lost Mark and Stephen, who had gone off to explore the south side of the lake and were out of holler range, but they caught back up as we turned onto Baltimore Dr and the group was nice and tight as we navigated the intersections to the bottom of the 70th St bump.

Terri & Hugo heading west on University Ave in Rolando.
We climbed back up to the mesa on 70th St and turned west on University Avenue (a much nicer cycling route through Rolando area than El Cajon Blvd is), enjoying some new stretches of buffered (and sometimes even green painted) bike lane until they all disappeared just east of Euclid Ave.
All together again in time for coffee at Twiggs!
I'm afraid the group scattered a bit heading back to University Heights, but as the streets were all in grid by then it was easy for everyone to fine their way to our usual finish line, Twiggs Bakery on Adams and Idaho. It was a nice 21 miler with lots of gentle rolling hills and a ton of view!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Forbidden San Miguel Mountain (and less than forbidden Mt Helix) by road bike

One mountain dominates the skyline of San Diego; antennae-topped Mt San Miguel. Rising to only 2567 ft (783m) at its peak, San Miguel's lack of vertical intimidation is well offset by its beautiful symmetry and proximity to the coast... and, of course, to road cyclist me, the smoothly paved access road that goes all the way to the top!
Mt San Miguel from Poe St in Pt Loma. The paler pyramid peak behind its left flank is Lyons Peak.
I had been lusting after this climb for a long while now, but kept on putting it off for various reasons (not the least of which has to do with all the 'no trespassing' signs around). A couple of weeks ago I finally decided to have a go at it, thanks very much to my friend Hippy who agreed to come along with me. Two is braver than one, and so we met up at the trolley station in Old Town on Saturday morning and rode the green line to El Cajon station to begin our journey.

Catching a ride in on the green line trolley at Old Town Transit Ctr
It had rained the night before, so the morning was of the damp and overcast variety, perfect for going up mountains, though a bit dirtying to the newly washed and lubed bikes. From El Cajon we rode south over the Avocado Blvd hump before furiously descending down to Rancho San Diego on Fury Ln to find Jamacha Rd delightfully nearly free of car traffic. A quick turn south on Campo Rd/Hwy 94 to enjoy the last bit of level pavement before the right turn onto Millar Ranch Rd, just after the old Sweetwater River Bridge (we didn't stop to see the bridge, though, as there were a bunch of hikers massed around on the near end of it, and I had already visited a few days before while scouting out the lower bit of the route).

Millar Ranch Rd, climbing to Millar Anita.
The proper climb (4.6 miles at 9.2% average grade per Strava) starts about 100 ft onto Millar Ranch Rd, after the icky gravel river-crossing segment (remember this on the way down and scrub all speed at the last right turn before the pavement goes poof on you!). The first 1.5 miles on Millar Ranch Rd is relatively mellow. There's the first kick (about 8.5% grade) for half a mile or so before a nice and mellow false flat before the second kick starts (depends on which line you take, the right hand bend could be as steep as 18% before dropping off to around 9%).

Millar Ranch Rd ends at the three-way junction at the top where we turned right onto gravely dirt Millar Anita Rd through a row of ranch houses. Sneaked in some gels and water as I slowly rolled over the bumpy road before turning left at the emus and speeding down the dippy base of Miller Ranch Rd (yup, different name. The Millar Ranch Rd that we rode up to Millar Anita does continue southeast down the other side of Mt Miguel as a dirt tract that eventually hooks up with Proctor Valley Rd, connecting Jamul to the Eastlake neighborhood of Chula Vista), the forbidden paved access to the top of San Miguel Mountain.

The gate completely blocks the road.
Hello 14% grade ramp with speed bump garnish. There are loads of (both of) these on the whole length of Miller Ranch Rd.
Let me just say that it wouldn't pay to be on a heavy steel touring bike trying to access Miller Ranch Rd from its base. You need something you can easily lift and maneuver. Once you hit the pavement again, though, you are in for a rather enchanting time on a 'remote' mountain road within easy sight of the city and coastline! I saw nobody but my buddy Hippy on my way up the mountain, and a whole lot of coyote doodoos (apparently the road is choiced toilet ground for the local four-legged population!). Just me on my creaky aluminum bike on the slick damp and extremely narrow road, occasional birds chirping from nearby brushes, and a quite solitude punctuated by Hippy's occasional yodeling from somewhere up the road (being more keen on filming my way up the mountain I had lost sight of my speedy companion soon after the first curve/ramp).
The mountain is less than 3000 ft tall, so the road can't keep on climbing steeply forever... can it??
Dude, it's gonna be something hairy on the way down this narrow twisty thing!
Mt San Miguel on a road bike is a strenuous climb of a very different variety than the long grind of Palomar South Grade route. It is a series of false flats interrupted by icky steep ramps that ranges anything from 12-20% grade, which, truth be told, is much better suited to my physiology than Palomar's 12 miles at near constant 6-8%. I like really steep ramps, as long as I get a decent recovery stretch on top of them.

About 2/3 of the way up the mountain a red dirt mountain bike/hiking trail intercept Miller Ranch Rd at a curve. It is quite a sight to see from further up the slope.
The prettiest mountain roads in the county (well, aside from Cam del Aguilar, perhaps) in my book!
After I had taken that pretty shot of the road from a switchback above it the road turned left in another switchback and Hippy reappeared. He had already gone to the top, had a long nap, taken in more view and chilly mountain air before deciding to come back to escort slow slug me up the last bit of the climb. You would never know how touched I was that he would endure another trip up the last 1/2 mile of Miller Ranch Rd until you've experienced it yourself. That nasty b*st*@# of a road had saved the ickiest surprise for last in the form of a long drawn out ramp that starts at 12% before mellowing out the wrong way to a 21% pitch, only to very slowly drop off as it nears the first set of tv antennae.

(Almost) Top!
We made it up the mountain's last fight without stopping, though, and got to enjoy quite a view from the television antennae complex... even in low-visibility weather! A few minutes after we topped out (well, my first and Hippy's second), a local hiker turned up. It had taken him an hour and a quarter to top the peak from a trail... really quite fast considering that it took me around 50 minutes on my road bike. The road ends on the antennae's west side, so the sweeping view from the top is from Otay Mountains (and Otay Lakes) north to Sweetwater Reservoir and Dictionary Hills. It was quite spectacular... though one that should be properly topped by another ascent on a clearer winter morning!
View of Otay Lakes from top of Mt San Miguel.
Descending a damp Miller Ranch Rd was something quite less than fun. Not only is this thing super narrow (it has only one lane and no shoulder or railing whatsoever) and winding, all the painted speed bumps seemed designed to purposefully bump a bicycle right off the mountain! The most nerve-wracking bit, of course, was that final long and very damp 12%-21%-12% ramp, taken very slow and still with a bit too generous portion of rear skidding just to stay on the road past the switchbacks before some dry patches started showing up on the pavement (I aimed straight for all of them, of course). The posted speed limit is 15 mph, but it would be folly to go down this thing at anything faster than 10 mph, imho.

On our way back to town Hippy split off for the trolley station as I went scouting the access paved road up to a water tower nearby (only to be foiled by locked fence). The morning was still quite young, though, so I decided to go find another route up Mt Helix instead (after all, that little rocky peak was directly on my way home).
Alto Dr climb up Mt Helix.
It pays to study alternate routes via Google Earth before hand. I found my way through many curvy side roads off Challenge Blvd from Avocado Blvd, and eventually ended up at the base of Beaumont, which climbed steeply up to acquire Alto Dr a little up the hill from Lemon St. Alto Dr is really a most delightfully twisty and well lined climb in the area, and an even better descent (though you always have to be careful coming down that thing with all the private driveways lurking behind blind corners).

A bunch of local kids volunteer-cleaning up trash at the Nature Theater & Yawkey Trail.
The Nature Theater on top of Mt Helix was bustling with people on the gray morning as a team of local youngsters were preparing to spread out to collect trash that some inconsiderate visitors had littered the area with.
Second climb of Mt Helix, this time from Vivera to Mt Helix Dr.
Mt San Miguel from Yawkey Trailhead on Mt Helix.
I was still feeling pretty good when I got to the top, so I decided to have another spin up the mountain, this time from the more mellow Vivera & Mt Helix Dr.

It was a good morning mountain ride! I was back home in time for a lunch as the clouds broke up and the afternoon turned out perfect beach weather. There's hardly a better place for a cyclist to be this time of year!