Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Alpine - Viejas Grade - Descanso and road rashes

Apologies for having neglected the blog a bit! After a slow slump work suddenly picked up to a frenzy pace the past couple of months and the few exploration rides I did make have been going a bit stale in my photo folders. [Right click fotos and open in new tab for full size]
Looking east on I-8 from Willow Rd/Alpine Blvd overpass. Viejas Mountain in left background.
Unseasonably warm and dry winter weather is now old news as March is knocking on the door, but back in mid-December it was still something of a surprise. After a weekend of high wind in the East County my friend Tim and I took a Tuesday off and carpooled up to Alpine Creek Shopping Mall on Tavern Rd in Alpine for a morning road cycling trip to Cuyamaca Peak. To get to Descanso from Alpine by bicycle without taking the long detour to Japatul Valley we had two choices, of course; taking the direct route by riding on the shoulder of I-8 to Hwy 79 (bicycles are allowed on this stretch of the freeway) or the more adventurous unpaved climb across the saddle between Poser and Chiquito Mountains on scenic Viejas Grade Rd. We opted to go east on Viejas Grade and return via the freeway.
A chimney is all that's left of one of the houses along Viejas Indian Reservation.
Now... isn't this a deluxe busstop shelter?
Heading east on Alpine Blvd before most of the business opened up for the day gave quite a nice warm up ride (it is mostly a gradual climb) and all our warmers were taken off by the time we crossed the freeway on W Willow Rd. At the Y-intersection we veered left onto Viejas Grade Rd and headed for the foothills to the north of Viejas Casino. The two-laned road is nicely paved blacktop there, though shoulderless. Residues of the last wild fire that passed through the area are still visible from the pavement; blackened dead trees, mostly cleaned up remains of a couple of burnt houses. We made a few turns to stay on Viejas Grade Rd and took a 'look around' break to admire one of the two or three covered busstops along the road. I, wondering out loud why we can't have as nice busstops in the city. I mean... these are really nice shelters with benches and even came equipped with a bike rack!
Viejas Grade Rd, dirt portion... with my little slide evidence on far left.
After a couple of miles pavement ends just as the climb starts.The dirt road is wide and well-graded, however, quite firm enough for my 25 mm Gatorskin tires to handle. There are a few sections where the top is looser than others and fosters attentive bike handling. It is quite fun, though skidding along on that alternating with the bumpy washed out sections of the road where any loose top had been blown off by the weekend's vicious wind gusts were pretty hard on the tires. I wouldn't have liked to descend down this road on my road bike, but climbing it's 4.4 miles of 5% grade slope was a fun challenge. The most important things, of course, are to look ahead and plot out a good line to follow (spot the firmest bit of the road from afar and aim for them) and to lay off from braking. I was having quite a good time filming and photographing as we climbed, and got myself into a not-so-nice little wheel-sucking slide in the process. Old mountain-biking instinct came to my rescue, though, and I pedaled my way out of it without having to put a foot down.

Lucky for me, Tim is a wonderful bike touring partner in crime and enjoys stopping to take in the view as much as I do. The view southwest from Viejas Grade Rd is pretty smashing from various bends as we snaked our way up the WE flank of Poser Mountain. Beautiful Viejas Valley where the casino lies framed in by Viejas Mountain to the west, and all the prominent peaks in the coastal range looks rather different when seen from the east. It is still easy to pick out McGinty Mtn and Lyons Peak, however (if you squint you can still see the latter' fire lookout towers). I'm afraid we were a noisy pair and scared the local birds into hiding, though I did spot a couple of bluebirds and at least one meadow lark.
Collection of road signs at the top of Viejas Grade.
After a while we topped out and took another 'sight-seeing' break looking around the eclectic collection of road signs and railroad ties at the crest of the road... and couldn't help wondering how they were collected. Viejas Grade remains unpaved for a further mile or so beyond the crest, so we made a careful descent until we got to the black top. A few spunky local horses tried to race us down the hill, and a couple of black-headed Steller's jays escaped into tree canopies before I could fish out my camera.

We opted to descend down Oak Grove Dr instead of continuing on Viejas Grade Rd. Tim had gone on a bit ahead as I stopped to attempt to photograph a kestrel that was hunting near the fork of the road. I soon caught up, however, and opted for an inside line into a fast right curve in order to avoid a series of potholes in the middle of the lane when I saw white patch on the pavement around the corner. Sand! The thing had at least 3/4 of the lane covered, it was a fairly blind curve and I was doing around 30 mph on the inside line. Braking was not an option (the worst thing you could do that would guarantee a skid out) and changing the line at that speed while taking a 90 degree curve was not much of one either, so I weighed down my outside foot, aimed as far left (away from the main patch of sand) as my momentum allowed and mentally crossed all my digits... and nearly made it across when the front wheel suddenly gave way and deposited me on the bumpy and sandy pavement.

It was about as mild a crash as the situation would allow. I'm afraid I didn't manage to tuck in and hold on to the bike, however, and I found myself skidding along with right arm stretched across the pavement acting simultaneously as head cushion and a rather expensive brake pad. It is a wonder how fast acting a painkiller adrenaline is when you hit something hard like that. Nothing really hurt, though the perpetually bored voice in my head did, in the few long and drawn out seconds that I spent skidding across the road, chimed in its sincere hope that an evacuation by ambulance wouldn't be required (when I crashed face first in Pt Loma last year the 8 miles long ambulance ride had cost me $2400... aside from doctors and radiology and emergency room fees) and how I will have ruined another good pair of arm warmers by the time I came to a stop... Then, of course, I realized that I had taken the arm warmers off before we started climbing, so I came to my stop half way across the opposite traffic lane with a mouthful of sand and gravel, wondering if my poor right arm still had any skin left on it. Before I could properly inspect the damages, though, Tim, who had screeched to a stop just beyond the cursed curve, yelled out, 'Car!' So I ditched the thought of damage inspection and the bike and hopped clear off to the high side of the road.
Not from this ride, but same sort of 'sand washed/blown onto road behind a curve on Torrey Pines Park Rd.
The car was carefully driven by a nice local lady, however, and she stopped for Tim to retrieve my bike from the road and even asked if she could help. Luckily for me I didn't hit my head (some dirt swallowing not withstanding), was sure that I didn't break any bone and none of the cut looked too ghastly for my first aid kit to deal with. Tim proved a good medic and we swiftly rinsed dirt and sand off my plethora of road rashes and had the worst of them bandaged up within a few minutes (if you ever crash and end up with open wounds, it's best to clean them while you're still numb, of course).

After straightening out the banged bent right hood and inspecting the frame and wheels for cracks I thanked prudence again for having opted for the sturdy aluminum bike rather than a lighter carbon one, and we remounted and headed on down the hill to the Perkins' Store in Descanso. A couple of nice Avon salesladies were set up in front of the store there and we had a good chat. Perkins' is to Descanso what Lyons Valley Trading Post is to Lyons & Deerhorn Valley, I think. The best place to catch up on local news and stuff. By now my wounds were stinging quite a bit, so I decided to abandon the day's ambitious objective (Cuyamaca Lookout Rd) and head back to town.
Smooth descent on westbound I-8.
Alpine Castle.
We had a nice smooth roll down I-8 westbound shoulder to E Willow Rd exit and through Alpine before making a short (tho hilly) side trip to photograph the elusive Alpine Castle from Eltinge Dr. It was a good thing we turned back! Tim dropped me off at Cal Coast Bicycles on my way home, where Todd the super-mechanic found both of my tires quite a bit beyond moderately flat and the rear derailleur a bit bent. No major repair needed, however. I'm telling you, my Giant Defy aluminum bike performs quite much more than I had expected from a $700 road bike!

As lucky as I was not to bang up my head or come off the mountain with a broken bone, the road rashes were quite awful. It always hurts a lot more on the day after, of course. The first three or four nights were quite terrible. I had managed to spread the road rashes around and there simply wasn't any way I could position myself so that none of them were touching something. I was grateful that we were in the midst of a Santa Ana weather pattern then, though, so long sleeves and blanket weren't required as it would have been much more miserable peeling wounds open every few hours to unstick clothes and bed sheets. My right arm took quite a beating and my right shoulder still hasn't regain its full range of motion, 2 1/2 months later, but it could have been worse. For much of the first week I really wondered if the whole arm wouldn't fall off or go septic on me. The upper arm had lost so much skin and was quite deadened and sore. It got much better once all the road rashes had dried out. Then, of course, the itching began a bit later as the scabs dried off and start attaching their corners to things.
After-ride photo
And here is a series of unappetizing (but hopefully educational) photos in case you're curious about what happens when you get a road rash.
The day after.
One week after.
One month after.
Everything heals in the end and you eventually do regain range of motion and stuff. Just have to put up with the uncomfortable process for a bit. My arm has benefited from arm warmers and coolers to shield the fresh scar from the sun, of course, though my right knee has fared a bit worse. The deep gash is right at the apex of the join and so I have had to let it burn in the sun when out riding since knee warmers keep pulling scab off it and tearing it back up... so that wound still looks pretty hideous in mid-February. It's all cosmetic now, though. The least of my concern. Hopefully I will have enough time to start training again next week for another go at Cuyamaca Lookout Rd before warm weather arrives!

In the meanwhile, here's a little video from the day's ride.


  1. Ouch! The road rashes look nasty, especially the one on your upper arm. I'm glad you didn't get hurt worse, tho. I've been meaning to try riding Viejas Grade. Thanks for good description of it. May try it later in March. Keep healing well!

    ~ Roland

  2. Hi Roland,
    Sorry I didn't see your comment earlier! My right shoulder is still a bit stiff and the scars are a bit tender, but otherwise I've healed very well indeed. Thanks very much. :o)

    Viejas Grade is a cool climb even on a road bike. A bit rough on the tires, but easier on the psyche than the I-8 shoulder. :o) Hope you get to try it soon!


Thanks for stopping by. Be safe on the roads!