approaching the Low-Key finish (Cara Coburn photo)
Yesterday I rode the Diabolical Duo at Mount Vaca.
First: Mix Canyon Road. Coordinator Barry Burr did an excellent job organizing this one, definitely the "road trip" ride for many in the 2011 Low-Key Hillclimb schedule. For my car pool it wasn't a big deal: one hour from San Francisco, even stopping for gas. Rides like Alba Road, Bonny Doon, Henry Coe, Jamison Creek Road, and Hicks Road we've done in the past are all substantially further, with plenty more of comparable distance. But most of our riders live closer to San Jose than to San Francisco, and for them the trip was further.
But even from San Jose this trip was worth it. A big part of it was our Strava event: The Diabolical Duo. The Low-Key Hillclimb covered just the first part of this: to complete the Duo, riders needed to also climb nearby Gates Canyon Road.
Inspiration for the Duo event came from The Toughest Ascent Blog. I won't even try to describe these roads: the blog already does an excellent job. All I'll say is they are seriously tough climbs. Take Mix: after a mellow start, it hits riders with a few steep pitches. Wow, that was tough, I thought, and then I hit the chalk "Hammer Gel Time" coordinator Barry had written on the road, marking the beginning of the "tough part". Tough? What had we just gone through?!?!
But what followed was truly impressive. When I hit the tight switchback from the Toughest Ascent Blog, I had to laugh. This was just insane!
But I got through that in my 34/27. Coming out of these switchbacks, you might expect some relief, but no luck: the road continues steeply until a following switchback. In the climb yesterday we had a photographer in that corner. Cool, I thought, the end of the steepness.
However, after turning that corner my hopes were crushed like a walnut shell under a cycling shoe. Not only was the steep stuff not over, but the road actually got even steeper still beyond this corner. This final part of the climb has been suppressed from lactic acid poisoning of the short-term memory centers of my brain. It wasn't even the raw grade numbers, but all that we had been through leading into those numbers.
Cara at the happy face marking the approaching finish (Lisa Penzel photo)
But like all climbs, this one finally ended. After the finish line for the Low-Key, Barry had set up a second line further up Blue Ridge Road, a gravel road which Mix Canyon intersects. This road was a bit wash-boarded but ridable even in my 20mm 182 gram sew-up tires. It took only a few minutes to hit this second line, the true summit of this climb. But I'd been wasted from my effort leading to the top of Mix, so I my pace here was far from impressive, especially given the distraction of the rough surface.
Returning to the Low-Key finish line at the top of Mix, I was a wasted shell of a human. I was still warm from climbing, but eventually the chilly 12C air penetrated, and I started to shiver. Fortunately I had warm clothes in the volunteer car, so was able to rectify this. I then got some fruit from the event refreshments. I was done.
Done, except that Ammon (with whom Cara and I had carpooled that morning) was waiting for me so we could do the second climb in the Duo, Gates Canyon Road. I couldn't disappoint him, I figured, I had to try.
So eventually we were off back down Mix. Ammon descends much faster than I can, especially with my flaky carbon Edge rims with their unsmooth braking surface which makes them prone to skidding, and my narrow tires pumped to 140 psi hardly inspired confidence. But eventually I made it down where Ammon and other riders were grouped. We set off together towards Gates Canyon, a few miles away. It was a nice ride along well-named Pleasants Valley Road.
Gates is interesting. It starts out almost flat, barely ascending from the valley. Then soon after the proper climbing begins, still not steep, one hits the road indicating the unpaved road. This is steep enough that grip is an issue. Ammon had zoomed ahead, and I was riding at that point with Low-Key regular James Porter, and while he was able to ride this, my tire skidded on the gravel. I could have let out some air pressure, but didn't want to risk damaging my rims if the pressure got too low, so just walked here. It was slow going. James was by now gone.
In sections, the road became just plain dirt. This had not been indicated on the Toughest Ascent Blog, so represented a recent change. I worried about clogging my Speedplay cleats, but they were fine.
But the dirt didn't last too long, and beyond it the pavement was very good, surprisingly good for what seemed to be a road to nowhere. But as soon as the pavement re-appeared, it bent into a disturbing, highly vertical angle. This road was even steeper than Mix had been! I was barely turning my 34/27, grinding away up the ferocious grade.
Many riders reported this had been tougher than Mix. Honestly I hadn't felt that way. Sure, it was steep, but I wasn't in nearly the same hurry, and I could focus on just getting up the thing rather than every second getting the most of out my legs. So here I was substantially less traumatized when I reached the end of the pavement, the end of the Strava segment. I then walked a bit on the gravel road which continued on to Mix Canyon Road, but just far enough to get a good view, then turned back.
As I got ready to descend, a local rider I'd passed arrived at the top, then soon after a group of Low-Keyers descended the dirt road I'd just walked down. The Low-Keyers had climbed to the high point of that road, almost to Mix, but had turned back. One had crashed and was bleeding. Just a flesh wound, though...
The local told us how he climbed Gates Canyon every Saturday, Mix Canyon every Sunday. He lived in Vacaville, he explained, and these were the local climbs. I was in awe. Deja-vu from Maui, where riders would climb 10 thousand foot Haleakala every week or two. No matter how extraordinary a climb, there are those for whom it becomes the ordinary.
We said goodbye to the local rider, descended together to Pleasants Valley Road. The descent wasn't bad. The fine gravel which I couldn't grip was fine descending, and the deeper dirt I could easily run. It was fun. At the bottom we then split up as we rode to our respective rides home.
Ammon, it turned out, had completed the root to Mix Canyon, and descended that instead of Gates. Very cool.
I didn't hear a single rider complain the longer-than normal drive hadn't been worth it. This day absolutely made the 2011 Low-Key series. If every one of the three remaining climbs is canceled from rain, I'd still say the series was a success. I'll never forget climbing these two roads.