Monday, March 25, 2013

Riding CCW Great Western Loop with Honey Springs Rd with a group

Although I generally lone-range on my weekday long exploration bike rides, I usually join up with a group once or twice on weekends. A couple of weekends ago I went with a group of 5 to ride a preview of the hilly bit of this April's Gran Fondo Campagnolo, starting from Eastlake area of Chula Vista and go up Honey Springs Rd to ride counter-clockwise most of the traditional Great Western Loop, coming back to Eastlake via Hwy 94 (instead of climbing up Lyons Valley Rd) to Otay Lakes Road.

Route map:

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I have done the Great Western Loop (GWL) and climbed up cat. 2 Honey Springs Rd a few times on my own, though I had never tried riding on Campo Road/Hwy 94 from Rancho San Diego to Otay Lakes Road... and probably wouldn't try it alone. Call me a chicken, but to connect to Honey Springs Rd from Otay Lakes Rd you have to spend a hundred meter or so on Hwy 94, and that little stretch alone is enough to scare me off soloing any significant bit of that narrow two-laned highway between San Diego and the turn off for the Mexican border in Tecate. There is hardly any road shoulder to ride on, and the road is too curvy and over-populated with speeding semi trucks and RVs for yours truly. Being in a group would help, though, I thought, if I can manage to be in the middle of the line of cyclists rather than at the slow end of it (so the trucks and RVs would spot the others and know to expect more cyclists on the road by the time they get to me, see?).

Anyhow, we went off a bit late since one of guys that signed up for the ride pulled a no-notice no show on us. An icky thing to do to stand up a group on a hilly ride like this! If you ever sign up to ride GWL or Honey Springs Rd in the summer & fall months, call the group if you have to bail out and don't make them wait. It gets really hot on the climb and even 20 minutes delay can make all the difference in the world!
Rolling east on Otay Lakes Rd on a hazy morning.
As it was, we took off on a pretty fast clip down rolling Olympic Pkwy to curvy Wueste Rd (which cuts Olympic Pkwy twice, be sure to take the second Wueste Rd instead of the first one that dead ends at a park on the south side of the lake after 3 or so miles) to Otay Lakes Rd. It was pretty hazy out, so all the bike lights came in handy riding east along the lower Otay Lakes (there isn't much road shoulder much of the way and what little traffic on that road tends to be speedy).

On the east shore of Otay Lake sits Nichols' Field, a little landing strip that is home to Skydive San Diego. Its little clubhouse contains Lemon Drop Cafe (food & drinks) and a row of really nice port-a-toilets (I mean, deluxe level port-a-toilets! They even have wash basin with tap water!). It, along with the Pio Pico general store at the campground another 3 or so miles up the road, are the only watering spots along this east end of Otay Lakes Rd.
Honey Springs Rd climbing up toward Lyons Peak, the rocky peak on the left side of the road.
After a little off-course venture on Hwy 94 we made our way up Honey Springs Rd as the air began to warm and the haze was thinning out a bit. This 7 mile climb is one of the best category 2 climbs in San Diego County. Its average gradient is 5%, but with a couple of ramps that are around 10-12%, followed by faux flats. The road is dominated by rocky Lyons Peak either straight ahead or off to the left for most of the climb (it's the rocky mountain with lots of antennae on top). There is enough road shoulder to ride on for much of the way up, except for a 1/4 miles shoulder-free stretch of the S-curves area about 2 miles up the road. Traffic usually is quite light, especially during the week, though we were riding on a Saturday and so were sharing the road with a few other cyclists and motorcyclists... along with occasional cars and trucks.
Looking back down Honey Springs Rd
The Honey Springs Rd 'Dip'
Mother Grundy Truck Trail turn off on Honey Springs Rd
There aren't many good turn out spots on Honey Springs Rd. The first good one is at the row of mail boxes where Mother Grundy Truck Trail branches off to the south. If you run low of water climbing up this road, however, the only water source along the climb is up at the Deerhorn Valley fire station on the right side of the road after Deerhorn Valley Rd and Jacob's red barn. On the left side of the fire house is a little stone bench and a water faucet that you can fill the water bottles with.

Honey Springs Rd at Jacob's red barn.
Deerhorn Valley fire station with water faucet on its left wall
If you plan on doing the GWL counter clockwise like my group did after climbing up Honey Springs Rd, you really must fill up at the DV fire station since that is the last water stop along the way all the way to Rancho San Diego. Those who plan to turn left (west) on Lyons Valley Rd for a clockwise loop, however, will have another chance at the Lyons Valley Trading Post a couple of miles west of Four Corners (the local name of the intersection of Lyons Valley Rd and Honey Springs Rd/Skyline Truck Trail).
Looking south on Honey Springs Rd from DV fire house. The tall rocky peak is Bratton's Peak (Eagle's Nest), actually on the near side of the road (it curves right at the white tree).
Our group was severely stretched out on the climb, and as nobody else in the group had ridden around here before I stopped everyone riding up behind me at the DV fire house so they can fill their water bottles before the 26 water-free miles stretch that laid ahead. We paused there for a good 15 minutes until the last rider arrived and filled up her bottles before taking off again. Our ride leader was the only rider ahead of me, though, and had gone all the way to Four Corners to wait for us. I was reminded yet again to get the cellphone number of all the riders in the group the next time I lead my own group ride. I don't know what our lead must have been thinking, waiting at the side of that intersection for perhaps 20 minutes before any of his riders turned up on the road. I was surprised that he didn't retrace back down Honey Springs to see what was holding everyone up!
Honey Springs Rd crests at Barber Mountain Rd.
Four Corners!
After the DV fire house Honey Springs Rd climbs another mile and a half or so to its crest at Barber Mountain Road. A mile of speedy descent followed into Four Corners where we turned right (east) and indulged on a couple more descending miles on Lyons Valley Road.

Heading NE on Lyons Valley Rd. Gaskill Peak in left background.
Alas, after the initial downhill miles Lyons Valley Rd soon climbs uphill again in stepwise fashion. Some 'steps' are more gnarly than others, now that we were closer to noon and the sun was flexing its beam a bit. The hillsides were full of wild lavender this time of year, however, and the scenes we rode through gave quite something to look at to take our mind off all the suffering.

Equestrians preparing for a ride in Barrett Valley area
Lyons Valley Rd carving its way northeast toward Japatul
View east of Lyons Valley Rd as it nears Japatul.
The road hugs Lawson Peak & Gaskill Peak to the left and, after Camp Barrett, features spectacular Barrett Valley to the right. Unfortunately we couldn't see secluded Barrett lake itself, but the hillside surrounding it is supremely beautiful... You just have to remember to take your eyes off the road and look right (and behind-ish) every now and then!
Re-grouped at Japatul Rd junction
Heading east on Japatul Rd after descending The Wall
After re-grouping at the junction of Japatul Rd, we turned west (left) and headed down the hill. There is a gorgeous valley view off the right side of the road as it curves its way east. The descent is uniformed except for two uphill humps on the road; the first one is fun to punch your way over without getting out of the big chain ring, the second is a vicious 1/3 mile stretch of 9-12% grade climb that really makes you pay for previous stretch of fun gravity-driven joy ride.
Loveland Reservoir from Japatul Rd. Looking rather anemic.
Once you've crested the climb, be sure to look left for the narrow finger of Loveland Reservoir on the left side of the road. Japatul Rd turns into Tavern Rd up to Alpine at the Y-intersection. We turned left onto Dehesa Rd and enjoyed 4 hair-raising miles of curvy descent into the Sycuan Casino traffic. This took a little adjusting. I could count on one hand the number of cars that passed me on Lyons Valley and Japatul Rds, but I quickly ran out of countable digits once I got halfway down Dehesa.

A left turn at Harbison Canyon Rd junction to stay on Dehesa Rd and through the Singing Hills neighborhood of Rancho San Diego. No photos from this bit of the ride, I'm afraid. Too downhilly followed by too trafficky for me to fish the camera out. By now everyone was running low on water again, so we veered into Cottonwood Golf Course along the way to patronize its well stocked clubhouse to-go bar. I was so content, resting in the shade while nursing a cup of iced Sierra Mist, that I totally forgot to take photo there, too...
Heading back SE on Steele Canyon Rd.
At any rate, we only rested a bit before hitting the road again, turning left (south) on Steele Canyon Rd, up a gnarly little climb toward Jamul. Our ride leader was nowhere in sight as I headed the chase group to the Campo Rd/Hwy 94 junction, so I headed left (SE) and hoped that he hadn't taken the wrong turn and gone into El Cajon instead.

Campo Rd/Hwy 94 between Rancho San Diego & Jamul has a decent shoulder to ride on.
The 'Phantom Hill' on Campo Rd/Hwy 94 heading into Jamul
Sure enough, a mile or so into 'the phantom hill' climb up Campo Rd he came riding up from behind, said a quick hello and was gone off the front of the group again up the busy highway. Did I mention that the dude was riding a single-gear bicycle? It isn't a fixie as he can coast and has front and rear brakes, but it only has one gear. I had all the exercise I needed going up things like Honey Springs Rd on my 8 speed cassette and I couldn't keep up with this single-geared dude!

Elvis was here! In Jamul!
When the road shoulder disappeared on Campo Rd/Hwy 94 SE of Melody Ln
The view sure is good off Campo Rd
Anyhow, Campo Rd is definitely one of the 'roads to avoid cycling on' in San Diego. I heard it used to be quite nice until it was connected to the Mexican border crossing at I-188 in Tecate, after which it became way too crowded with speeding cars and trucks and has one of the highest accident rates in the county. On the northwest stretch between Rancho San Diego and Jamul it does have a good bit of road shoulder to ride on, however. After Jamul a gorgeous view develops on the slight descent toward Otay Lakes Rd. A curvy narrow highway, hardly any shoulder to speak of, lots of speeding RVs and trucks, and a gorgeous view to distract drivers all the way to Tecate. Hwy 94 isn't a road for sane cyclists to ride on voluntarily!

It was a relief when we finally turned right onto Otay Lakes Rd for the home stretch of the trip. Everybody was dragging a bit by this point, though I was familiar enough with the area to have saved some reserve just for the next 9 miles of strong headwind back to the west side of the lake, and did some serious pulling. That didn't help keep the group together, however. I wanted to stay just ahead of the two gals in our group that were struggling a bit, but I didn't dare losing touch with the two guys who were forging on ahead either, because they didn't know the route and I was afraid that they would miss the Wueste Rd turn off to go back to our start point.

Back west (and into the wind) on Otay Lakes Rd
In the end I had to drop the gals just before Skydive San Diego, tucked in and time trialed my way back to the guys and caught them just as the fastest one was about to keep heading west on Otay Lakes Rd at Wueste Rd intersection (it is a minor turn off that is really easy to miss) and had to ring my bell and shouted like crazy to get his attention. We waited there until the gals arrived a few minutes later before taking off again at a much easier pace in order to stay in a tighter group. None of us had seen the ride leader since the corner of Hwy 94 and Otay Lakes Rd where he waited to direct the rest of the group back west, so I was a bit concerned that he might have missed Wueste Rd turn off. A quick phone call and it turned out the dude had gone on ahead to the finish.

Up another Olympic Pkwy roller toward the finish!
The way back wasn't complicated, though, as we rolled up the 3 or 4 rollers on Olympic Pkwy back to the parking lot of Home Depot where we started. It was a long and hilly work out with lots of view and good company.

After this ride I was reminded of how difficult leading a group ride of this caliber must be, though. I really was spoiled when I started doing group rides with the LUNA Chix last year (they're predominantly woman riders, but they also welcome guys who will stay with the group rather than going off on attacks) since they always have at least 3 lead riders taking care of the group (a lead rider heading the way, a sweep rider at the back of the pack, and an intermediate rider who makes sure everyone makes the right turns along the route). Perhaps only 2 lead riders are enough for shorter and easier rides, but on punishing hilly ones like this ride you'd either need a marked course or a third, I think... That, or making all the riders study the route before hand!


  1. That's pretty crummy the lead rider left the group before the finish like that! And why the hell was he riding a single-gear bike while leading a group ride on a hilly route? If he wants to train he should do it on solo rides, not when he's expected to look after others. Great riders don't necessarily make great ride leaders, I say.

    Jon Strahn

  2. Hi Jon,
    Can't argue with you. It was good to have such a strong rider leading the group, tho he was probably too strong for the group's good. I imagine he might have retraced down Honey Springs to find out where his riders went, for one, had he been riding properly geared bike (instead of the single gear, which was hard work for him going up a climb like that). :oP

    I should have mentioned that the group was made up of 'intermediate' riders who could be expected to look after ourselves on the road... Though I'm with you that he shouldn't have ridden off to the finished on his own without making sure the next rider on the road knew the remaining turns. I was as surprised that none of the others had entire route memorized and were so dependent on the leader (and when he went missing, me) on direction. It was a bit of a failure on both sides on that front, I think. :o)

    Thanks very much for stopping by. Have a good cycling weekend!

  3. Did you see the sign telling drivers it's better to hit cyclists than getting in a head-on collision when you rode this?


  4. Hello JP:
    I don't recall seeing it during this particular ride, but I've seen it since. It's on the SW corner of Honey Springs/Skyline TT and Lyons Valley Rd - the area called 'Four Corners'. It's on a tree a few feet behind a private property fence.

    Not everyone up there share that anti-bicycle sentiment, though. I've met and chatted with a few locals on my rides and online and most of them are cool and considerate drivers. Unfortunately that sign has been getting a bit more air-time than it deserved, I think. :o)


Thanks for stopping by. Be safe on the roads!