Saturday, February 9, 2013

Cold Ride from Valley Center to Borrego Springs for Montezuma Grade

So, I wrote the previous blog post listing all the notable road cycling climbs around San Diego that serve as stepping stones (or rites of passage, if you will) to gauge where you are as a local rider, and there was one climb on the list that I hadn't managed to ride up yet. That sort of things bugs me... So a few weeks ago I decided to fix it!

39F as the bus rolls into Escondido Transit Ctr. Not ideal cycling temperature!
And, man, was my timing sucky! It seems like every time I resolve to go out riding in the mountains despite of cold weather, the weather would then decide to warm up on the very next day. It did that to me again a couple of Tuesdays ago when I somehow got myself out of bed at 3:30am in order to catch the 4:54am bus from downtown to Escondido (where I would then connect on two more buses that would take me to Harrah's casino in Rincon, my starting point for a long day on the bike). It was 39F in downtown Escondido where I spent 30 minutes jogging and jumping in place to keep from turning into a solid pillar of very colorful ice waiting for bus 388 (back then it does this counter-clockwise loop from Escondido Transit Center thru Valley Center to Pala Rd and back via I-15. This has changed since) to arrive.

I could have gone inside the roofed and walled station restroom until closer to arrival time, of course, but there is only room for 2 bicycles on the bus and there was already another bike in the line with me and I didn't want to take the chance that more bikes would turn up looking to get on the same bus while I was gone. I had 5 layers on my torso, though just a pair of bib short and two layers of leg and arm warmers. They would have worked alright riding on a bike, but just hanging around at the cold bus station I was soon chilled to the bones.
Does that look cold? It was cold riding up Hwy 76. Frost still on the ground near S6 turn-off.
The Harrah's casino bus stop in Rincon wasn't the farthest stop the bus could have taken me before I had to start cycling, but I got out there because of the 7/11 shop and its really nice restroom. Long distance cyclists like me appreciate nice, spacious & clean restrooms so much we're willing to add a couple more hilly miles to the already long route just to indulge our bottoms a bit. It had taken me three hours just to get to Rincon from San Diego by bus. I took off on the bike a few minutes after 8am and shivered my way up Valley Center Rd.

A couple of miles east (and up) on Hwy 76 two of the five layers came off, along with the skull cap and a layer of arm & leg warmers. It's amazing how much heat your body generates with a bit of exercise! Of course, the wind-jacket was put back on 4 miles later as I passed the plateau where Hwy 76 intersects with SR6, Palomar South Grade Rd, and I spotted a downhill stretch diving around the corner. What horrible thing that little downhill bit of the road was! By the time the road leveled out near La Jolla Indian Reservation and started climbing again I was shaking so much that I could hardly hold a straight line. A quick stop at Lake Henshaw Resort store at 9:40am didn't warm me up much. It was 30F outside and windless. The lake was so still it almost looked frozen over.
Lake Henshaw on a frosty morning.
I could hardly resisted lingering a bit to take it the sight. It's a beautiful lake!

Anyhow, a left turn onto Hwy 79 and soon I began to appreciate the usefulness of the rumble strip. A rumble strip is the indentation of the center line along the narrow highways so that it creates mini-bumps when a vehicle veers onto it, creating a rumble noise (and quite a bit of vibration for the vehicle). Hwy 76 had rumble strip on its center lane and gave me a good heads up that I was about to be passed by a car that's veering onto the center line to give me room as it passes. Much of Hwy 79 north of the Hwy 76 intersection doesn't have rumble strip, however, and, with wind in my ears I was taken by surprised by a few really huge vehicles that didn't sound anything until they were right next to me... 
Hwy 79 thru Mataguay Reservation
Going north on Hwy 79 is almost like riding into Tolkien's Rohan, green rolling grass plain bordered in the distance by weather-making mountains. The road mowed right through a few little knolls and then surprised me with this mini twist lined by a rock formation as I passed through the Mataguay Indian Reservation.
Warner Ranch with Hot Springs Mtn in background
I turned right (east) onto San Felipe Rd right after the power sub-station just as the wind started to pick up. The road was on a gradual climb, but the wind was on my back, which helped a bit. This road is downright gorgeous! Cattle munching down endless supply of grass on both sides of the road, with gloomy looking Hot Springs Mountain hovering not very far away to the north. The sky was mostly sunny just about everywhere else except for right on top of Hot Springs Mountain. Being the tallest peak in San Diego County apparently comes with the right to make its own weather!
Montezuma Valley Rd (SR22) heading east toward Ranchita.
It was almost past 10am when I turned left onto SR22, Montezuma Valley Rd and was pleasantly surprised by... a bike lane! Not road shoulder, but bike lane, with sign posts and even white bike logo painted on the lane! My piked enthusiasm was well modulated by the next sign on the road, though. Expect strong wind for the next 17 miles up this road... Uggghhh!

Frozen Ranchita. There were even pockets of snow left on shady spots on the side of the road!
The Ranchita yeti. There's a big port-a-toilet next to the tree behind him.
The wind caution sign wasn't kidding. Just as I rolled into frost-covered Ranchita it was blowing a constant 15-20 mph with occasional gust that seemed bent on knocking me off the road. I wondered about that while stopping to admire the giant white yeti that serves as the town's landmark. If the Ranchita Country Store next door was heated, I didn't notice. I paid for another bottle of water and a Snicker bar and went back out into the freezing wind. It was almost 11am now and I really had to get going if I were to bag Montezuma Grade climb and make it back to Rincon to catch the 4pm bus 388 back into Escondido.
A curious trio of yard ornaments in Ranchita.
There really wasn't anything much in Ranchita side from the group of 3 buildings where the white yeti is (there's a museum hiding behind the little complex, too, and a big-ish port-a-toilet). SR22 was lined with ranches and their guard dogs. Another mile east and I passed the Anza-Borrego Desert Park entrance sign before the road commenced its famous 12 miles downhill drop to Borrego Springs. The Montezuma Grade isn't nicknamed The Glass Elevator for no good reason!

A breath-taking cycling descent! Pressed for time, though, I didn't go on into Borrego Springs proper but turned right around at the bottom of the grade to start right back up the mountain. It was now 11pm and I needed to make it back to Ranchita within 2 hours or so. This is when it quite sucks to not have a car as there was no practical bus service to San Diego from this area. (There are two buses from San Diego to Borrego Springs, but they only run once a week in each direction!). There wasn't much to look at at the start, heading up the rocky mountain, but after a few S-bends the view started to open up on the far side of the road and the gradient settled into a more or less constant 6% gnaw.

This being a Tuesday I only passed one other cyclist, though a few cars blew past me up the hill from the desert. There are stretches where the uphill side of the road widened into two full lanes plus a shoulder, however. Whoever put that in, thank you!

There were a few turn off scenic overlook spots on the downhill side of the road, but I didn't dare crossing over to them for a pause. The Glass Elevator was so twisty and I was inching up it so slowly that I would likely get nailed by the next car to speed out from the next curve. Besides, it's hard going starting back up after a pause on a climb like this. I shot a few video clips on my way up the hill and finally pulled over onto one of the scenic overlooks when I got within 3 or so miles from the top.
Various views from Montezuma Grade (Hwy SR22) from Borrego Springs to Ranchita
What can I say? It's a marvelously gorgeous road! And as marvelously gorgeous roads often do, Montezuma Grade makes you pay for its view... The last two miles to its crest was some of the most painful miles I've had to cycled up. The rocky banks gave way to bare desert shrubs that gave zero protection from the bone-chilling west wind that now blows directly in my face just as the slope spiked up to a mile long stretch of 8% grade. I was reminded of Anne Mustoe's despair as she cycled against endless headwind in Kansas:
"It Homer had known about bicycles, he would have devised another punishment for the souls of the damned in Hades - cycling for all eternity under a blazing sun along a straight, treeless road into the teeth of a hot, wild wind. I never doubted that I should make the crossing, but why did it have to be so hard?"
 - Anne Mustoe, A Bike Ride.
I was up and over the crest in Ranchita at bit past one, and roughly 35 miles laid between me and the bus ride home... Thirty five miles that had taken me a bit over 3 hours to cover on my way out. I had a gusting headwind to contend with for the next 10 miles or so, and it was now past 1pm. To heck with a rest stop at Ranchita, I needed to haul butt!
Can you spot the Palomar Observatory on the saddle-back of Palomar Mountain?
Luckily, I didn't quite realize that most of the way back was now downhill. Quite sooner than I thought I was back under the shadow of Palomar Mountain again, the white dome of its observatory gleaming in the afternoon sun.

After a quick stop to pick up a bottle of 7Up from the Lake Henshaw Resort store, I took off sprinting down Hwy 76 again. It was a bit past two now and there was a one and a half mile stretch of climbing left to do before the hair-raising downhill from South Grade Rd turn off down to Rincon and the bus. I could really hate Palomar Mountain for being in the way anytime I need to ride east from Valley Center in search for awesome country view, but the top of that big chunk of earth had grabbed hold of a low cloud and was in the process of covering itself with another coat of snow. The sight of that was so mesmerizing that I decided to forgive it its location and rode on down into Valley Center, arriving with just 10 minutes to spare before the next bus pulled up... happily with an empty bike rack on its front.

It was another 3 1/2 hrs before I could wearily wheel my bike into my room, wobbled into the shower before dropping into the relatively warm bed, however. I like living without a car most of the time, but the long bus commute to get to big sky biking country really isn't a loveable thing.

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Thanks for stopping by. Be safe on the roads!