Thursday, June 19, 2014

Somewhere Over The Rainbow Crest... On A Road Bike (1 of 2)

A while back I got a tip from a motorcyclist friend about a road that possibly allows eastern access to beautiful Rainbow Heights from Pala Temecula Rd (S16). The road is called Arouba Rd and only looks partly paved from above on Google Earth... with some really hairy elevation gained per mile number. Naturally, this called for an exploration ride!

To get to the south terminus of Pala Temecula Rd, however, requires traveling on the rather dangerous stretch of narrow and super curvy Hwy 76 between the rock quarry just east of I-15 and Cole Grade Rd. To increase my chance of surviving to tell my tales, I decided to bus in instead. From Uptown San Diego this meant rolling into Downtown to catch the 4:54am MTS bus 20 to Escondido to connect to Breeze buses 350 and 389 all the way to Pala Casino. It's a nearly three hours transit that required quite heavy dosage of coffee before and after to survive.

Heading east on Pala Mission Rd.
Finally getting properly on my bike I rolled out of the convenient store at Pala Casino gas station just past 8 am and dropped in for a very quiet visit at Mission San Antonio de Pala at the junction of Pala Mission Rd and Pala Temecula Rd. Not a soul was around as I rolled slowly around the peaceful old mission and its well shaded courtyards.
The view was pretty tranquil from the swing set at Pala Mission School.
Mission San Antonio de Pala.
I used to ride my rigid steel mountain bike down to this place once or twice a months in the early 90's when I lived in Murrieta Hot Springs just north of Temecula. The mission itself hasn't changed much at all, though the surrounding is more developed now. And, of course, the casinos (Pala, Pauma, Pechanga) that had sprung up in the area since then have turned the formerly tranquil S16 into a paved road version of Russian roulette for cyclists. Once the road starts twisting its way up the well wooded valley between Mt Olympus and Tourmaline Queen Mountain north of Pala proper what little shoulder there is disappears along with much of driving/riding visibility. You would think that people would drive slower and more cautiously in such conditions... and you would be quite wrong.
Pala Temecula Rd in Pala.
Pala Temecula, the start of the curvy section that makes Hwy 94 feels quite safe by comparison.
By the middle of the second curve I was seriously doubting my chance of surviving the two or so miles before I could turn west away from this shooting gallery at Arouba Rd. It couldn't come fast enough! The turn off isn't marked, of course. I only recognized it because I had Google Earth-ed the route before hand. It's the first paved lane leading west from the highway. There's a car gate at the bottom (it was open, but I don't know if it's always left open or not). The road makes a sharp right turn shortly after the gate and it looks quite unpleasantly steep.
Arouba Rd branching off from S16 (Pala Temecula Rd).
After the first turn on Arouba Rd.
The first turn on the road had me immediately on my lowest gear (30x26)... and it only got steeper from there. 'At least it is paved,' thought I, until 50 or so yards further up the ramp when the pavement broke up into about 30 yds worth of steep dirt section. On the other side pavement picked up again as the road switchback left up the hill at about 17% grade and gave my legs a good burn. Then, of course, it turned into this really shitty steep and loose dirt and gravel thing with lots of tire-eating ruts and no shade to offer any shelter whatsoever.
Looking back down Arouba Rd's 1st switchback turn.
After the switchback, the Arouba pavement said both 'Good bye' and 'Fuck You' at the same time...
Does it look nasty in the photo? It is worse in real life! I climb fairly well but 30x26 is way too big a granny gear to cope with such a climb, especially when it is driving a set of 25 mm road slick tires. This was when not using SPD shoes/pedals came in handy for me. It was hard just walking the bike up to the top of the ramp. Then I crested and looked down the other side to find...
I love my road bike, but this was way too rough!
The drop west into the valley was even steeper and ruttier than the east side! My friend should be glad that curses and hexes don't actually work 'cause I sure was throwing truck loads of them his way as I gingerly slip-sliding my way hike-a-biking down the really loose gravel road. Even when the slope eases up near the bottom the road was still way too loose and rutty to remount my road bike. I think the bottom of the valley is where the road changes name to Lemon Line Rd, though. I could see a house or two up on top of the hills, but nothing close by but some bee farming boxes by the side of the road.
The foresty bit of Lemon Line Rd.
A bit after the bee boxes the gravel becomes fine gravel and dirt firm enough for slow and cautious riding. Lemon Line Rd snakes its way into thick shades that had me both spooked and mesmerized at the same time. I really would have enjoyed that section of the route more had I not seen relatively fresh bobcat spoors just up the road. Then, almost like magic, the shade trees pulled out a bit and I emerged onto the apex of a really beautiful tight and, gasp, paved switchback. I had reached Jeremy Way!
Jeremy Way, I love you. Jeremy Way, yes, I do!
I don't think I had ever been so happy to see a paved road in my life! I was no longer lost in an unknown valley with only hungry bobcats and bees and a bunch of funny quails for company! The warming morning suddenly didn't feel as much a threat. And though I had arrived here later than I had planned it, I decided to explore a bit and went left on Jeremy Way instead of right and head straight for Rainbow. After all, I am unlikely to come this way again soon or often. Jeremy Way is a dead end road, so I only went up it for a bit before turning back. It turned out to be a good thing to do since I caught a nice long range profile of my route west from one of the curves.
Heading south, up the hill, on Jeremy Way.
Caught a preview of Gomez Creek Rd from a curve on Jeremy Way. That long ramp up the hill really didn't look encouraging!
Oy vez, it was now almost 10 am and the weather forecast was for a high of 92F, so I had better shape up and head west if I want to get over that seriously quads-busting ramp before it gets really hot. So, back down Jeremy Way I went, rolled on past the switchback I had popped up on earlier and had another nice reminder of why wise cyclists don't bomb downhill on unfamiliar roads...
The sand was pretty thick right under the shade on Jeremy Way.
Gomez Creek Rd climbing west toward Rainbow Crest.
I didn't crash, mind you. I had learnt my lesson from the Oak Groves Rd crash last December and wasn't trusting any shaded spot and blind curves... for good reason. They were all covered in sand! Anyhow, Jeremy Way soon climbs out of the shades and becomes Gomez Creek Rd. And it sure is a looker! There area orchards and farms along the south side as the road creeps up the hill in steps of around 7-9% grade.
Looking back at the stone walled house at the Gomez Creek Rd elbow turn.
The bottom of the Gomez Creek Rd dip.
Then the road crests at a tight right elbow turn flanked by really cool stone walls and a handsome ranch house. From there it is a fun little curvy descent to a sharp (and quite sandy) turning dip and climbs out of it at about 8-13% grade until the right elbow turn between a huge fir tree and a ranch house. That's when it really kicks up.

The last bit of Gomez Creek quads/lungs-buster before Rainbow Crest.
It was a good thing I had glimpsed at the climb's profile while I was on Jeremy Way as I wouldn't have liked to be surprised by that post-elbow-turn ramp! The bottom part of it is surely on the wrong side of 23% grade, and it only dropped off to a steady long grind of 12-15% and doesn't start to mellow out until very close to the top, .4 mile from the turn. If you are familiar with the hills of San Diego City, this was like going up the first ramp on Juan St followed by Illion St wall that only drops off to the Pringle St climb from San Diego Ave.

Yes, I did reach Rainbow at the crest of the climb, but by then I was way too wasted to feel happy. I just wanted to toss the bike back down the hill and die! But, I couldn't just then. I wasn't quite out of the woods yet.

Part 2 coming up in a bit.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Believe it or not, N Harbor Dr just got more dangerous for bicycles, thanks to new bike lane

I had only ridden east (from Pt Loma toward downtown) on N Harbor Dr through the airport once before, I think it was around December 2012. I was still quite green to road cycling then and this group ride I joined took us through there. It was a horrible nightmare and I still don't know how all 8 or 9 of us survived that airport off-ramp merge just east of Harbor Island Dr. Navigating that merge across two fast moving lanes of traffic made Russian roulette seemed a safe and sane game by comparison.
Overhead view of the area. Bikes would be traveling on the dotted line... only to suddenly find ourselves in the middle of 4.5 lanes of fast traveling cars, with the 1.5 off-ramp lanes on the right trying to merge to our left.
Overhead shot of N Harbor Dr at Harbor Island Dr before bike lane (screenshot from Google Earth).
The merging area where the airport off-ramp merges to N Harbor Dr, before the new bike lane was put in.
After that episode I avoided riding through there on the way home from my Pt Loma rides, and when I do have to go to Downtown from Pt Loma I'd hop onto the sidewalk MUP (multi-use path) at the Harbor Island Dr intersection just to avoid that merge (and, yes, there are always some jerk cyclists riding way too fast and too close to pedestrians and runners on that stretch of the MUP. I guess when they get off their bike and into their car they turn into those drivers that pass other cyclists too fast and too close, too!).

Anyhow, last week a friend took me riding home from Pt Loma through N Harbor Dr again. We got to the Harbor Island Dr intersection and noticed there was now a buffered bike lane leading east on the road... and we got wondering if some new bike infrastructure had been put in to make it safe(r) to stay on the road through the dangerous merge... Naturally we made the mistake of, you know, getting on that buffered bike lane to check it out.
Heading east on N Harbor Dr approaching Harbor Island Dr. We would normally be hopping onto the MUP on the right sidewalk at this intersection.
But last weekend we spotted this... a new buffered bike lane telling us to stay on the road.
Heading east on N Harbor Dr buffered bike lane... Not seeing any warning sign for bikes or cars...
I took a few pics from the airport off-ramp underpass heading toward the merge, and I was looking out for some signs telling cyclists on the bike lane what was coming up ahead or telling the cars coming down the off-ramp to slow or to look for bikes on their left and to yield... or even a traffic light or stop sign that would be controlling the merging lanes' traffic flow. I didn't see anything...

Nope, not a single 'yield' or 'stop' or 'watch for bikes crossing from left' sign. Nothing...
And then there it was! The merge... No warning or caution or yield or stop sign for anyone. Nothing. The thin strip of traffic island that divided the buffered bike lane from the two lanes of airport off-ramp just ends, and the bike lane does this elbow turn to the right and just disappears into the crossing traffic lanes (the right one of which is merging left, so the cars are already preoccupied with making room for each other at that point. Who the heck would be expecting to have to look for any bicycle's sudden appearance on his LEFT??). I could see the buffered bike lane emerging again by the curb on the far side of traffic, but there isn't even a dotted set of line connecting one side to another.

My friend was somehow convinced that the airport off-ramp traffic had a 'yield' sign that they need to obey (if there is one, it must be way back up toward the top of the overpass 'cause I'm sure I didn't notice any in the last 100 yds or so) and just turned with the disappearing bike lane and went right across traffic. I don't know how, but he somehow made it across without getting hit. I had much less faith in drivers' ability to obey any yield sign (especially ones that I myself hadn't seen), so I slowed and the yellow car in the lane closest to me just blew by. The red car in the far right merging lane hesitated a bit before also blowing by... but there was a good little gap behind him that I could thread through if only the next car in the lane next to me would just go, but he didn't! He slowed to try to help me cross, which made it even more awkward 'cause the last thing I wanted was for him to slow and block me from view of the not-yielding car in the far right lane. People gets killed that way all the time! Luckily for me, tho, the car in far right lane had a sensible driver and he also slowed when he saw this other car slowed, and I managed it across. I was grateful for those drivers, but I couldn't be more mad at the traffic engineer who came up with this scenario if I had tried. Felt like I had just survived an assassination attempt!

I'm afraid I didn't taking any photo as I tried to survive the merge and right after it. I was far too busy cursing and wishing all sorts of ill stuff on whoever it was that designed that interchange for bikes. As a local I knew about this dangerous interchange and only ventured onto it last week because I was LURED into by the new bike lane. Otherwise I would have just gotten onto the sidewalk MUP and not be in conflict with any car at all. What are the chances for the tourists trying to get around town by bicycle who aren't familiar with the area at all?

If any cyclist gets hit by a car there and dies, the traffic engineer that designed that interchange ought to be charged with premeditated murder. Before this buffered bike lane was put in, at least cyclists finding ourselves suddenly in the middle of the traffic could just stay in the lane and take a while to merge to the curb. Now the bike lane wants us to suddenly do a 90 degree turn across 1.5 lanes of traffic that hasn't been told to look out for us... and we aren't even told to stop where the divider ends either. We're just supposed to roll along, turn right with the vanishing bike lane and somehow all those cars speeding down the airport off-ramp that's trying to merge left to the main road are supposed to totally miss us.

And to think that I have been told fairly recently by some car-centric morons that "bikes should just stay in the city and ride only in bike lanes"...