July 11, 2004: A true test of skill . . . and nerve

Thusly dubbed by Romulus as we made our way back into the City on the 80. And so it was.

I met up with Rom at 6:30 AM at his place, meaning a 5:30 AM wakeup call for me. We brought on Bonzai at his place and were crossing the BB by 7:00. Got to the Mitchell Canyon trailhead at the base of Mt. Diablo at about 7:45, assembled the bikes, threw the Charger ball around a little bit, lathered up the sunscreen, and hit the trail right at 8:00.

Not yet fully heated up, the day promised to be boiling -- baking beneath the cloudless deep blue ceiling, the soil had that hot smell, vanilla, like pine trees give off on really hot days. Smells like summer in the bush.

From the trailhead there's a nice mile or so of gently sloping uphill. Perfect for getting into a rhythm and making some time. From there though, the pain sets in really hard and fast. Instantly the grade goes from 4 percent to double digits. Then it starts to get steep, with stairs that can get into the low 20s. This would be a brutal climb if it was on asphalt, but on loose, crumbly DG the effort can be excruciating. Romulus had mentioned on the drive out that Diablo was like a once or twice a year ride because there's not too much variety to it. It's hills and pain, pain and hills.

We stayed pretty close on the climb and I took my turns on the front. Felt good, but Blue was plagued by a series of niggling mechanicals. First off, Blue's drivetrain is now a patchwork quilt of pieces of different ages and provenance, so it was groaning and skipping and slipping, especially on the steep sections where I had to lay on the torque. After pulling a couple of 20 percent steps in 2-3 (2=middle ring; 3=third easiest cog), I couldn't take it anymore and make some tweaks to the derailler barrel adjusters. Not perfect, but at least I was now able to get to all my gears. I mean, I live in the granny gear, so if I can't get to it, especially on a massive climb like Diablo, I'm in trouble. The shifting got better, but I was still futzing with the barrel adjusters, the brakes, my helmet, a failed cyclometer, you name it, at every single stop. Very annoying for me and I'm sure for the fellas.

About two-thirds of the way to the summit, we came out onto the paved road that runs to the top. Soon as we hit the pavement, Bonzai kicked and he was fucking gone like he was shot out of an RPG launcher. He left me and Romulus gasping for air and fading in the rear view mirror like we wuz pulling a couple of trailers. Now don't get me wrong, Romulus and I worked it hard going up. The climb was awesome. The road was the perfect grade (about 4 to 6.5 percent) to get up a head of steam and really make an attack on the field. We passed numerous roadies who couldn't quite believe that THREE MTB'ers were blowing by them on this uphill. They probably thought Bonzai was some kind of mutant freak, but then another MTB shreds them a couple of minutes later and then another one a couple of minutes after that. A couple of the more serious roadies were not going to take this laying down though, and as I passed the last two, I saw in their double-takes that being passed by another MTB was not acceptable -- they were going to counterattack.

They both geared up as I pulled away from them, and the extra effort immediately cracked one of them. The other guy stabilized about 50 feet back and slowly, slowly started to reel me in. I could gauge his progress because he kept loudly clearing his lungs, "Hooooh-hah!", kind of Scent of a Woman-like every 20 seconds or so. Bonzai was long since out of sight and I had no idea how much further to the top, so I just kept the cadence going as fast as possible, alternated standing and sitting, and hoped to hold on until the summit. He was gaining though, albeit in slow motion.

Come around a blind corner and find myself staring face-to-face with the most awesome finishing climb there could be for a race. Here the two-lane road splits, with single parallel lanes separated by dirt ravine -- one for going up and one for coming down -- heading straight up (~14 percent grade) about 200 yards to the horizon. I hear the huffer changing gears and I can feel him making a move. No fucking way. I didn't set the pace for the last mile just to lead this guy out to an uphill sprint victory. Bonzai may have gotten maximum polka dot jersey points here already, but I was going to be damned if this roadie was going to beat me to the top. I'm a fucking climber. So, I flicked up a gear and dug in, spinning as fast as I could. Still, the huffer was right on my wheel, maybe 10 feet back. I kept pushing. I heard him shifting, but I matched the sound of his shifter with more RPMs and after about 125 yards, I sensed that he was tiring. That was all I needed, I flicked down a gear, got up and danced on the pedals for the last 50 yards, whirring furiously for the pride of making it to the top first. A track throw at the entrance to the parking lot and I had done it. As I contemplated a hands-free double fist pump, I glanced up and noticed Bonzai helmetless and munching a snack in the shade. I was humbled.

From there it was a wild succession of hairy, treacherous downhill pitches littered with a full range of loose, sliding rock debris. At many points during the unnervingly steep downhills, the ground was so loose it was more like snowboarding than bicycle riding as we slid over the top of the fire roads, doing the best we could just to guide our rigs in the general direction of the lines.

I went for it, but I had zero confidence on the downhills. From the moment we left the car, my brakes had been making a horrible screeching noise every time I touched them. Sometimes this happens, but it usually goes away after a while. Not today. By the time we started down from the top, the screeching had not mitigated once decibel. On top of that, my brakes completely failed about a quarter of the way down. Suddenly, the brakes just had no bite. I tightened them with the barrel adjusters, but it made no difference. I was without true stopping power -- the best I could do was slow myself down to the point where I could bail off the bike if I needed to. This happened once before as I was coming down from the top of the Corte Madera trail complex into Purissima Redwoods and it turned out the brake pads had worn down so much they had slipped partially off the sides of the rims. I found it surprising that this should happen today since I had inspected the pads yesterday and fine-tuned the brakes (see July 9, 2004: Four-wheel Monty). At any rate, there was nothing I could today but try to make it to the bottom without a major incident. Pretty hard when you're flying downhill on loose dirt with no brakes at 39 miles per hour.

We all made it safely to the bottom though and were reveling in the glow of a ride well done when Bonzai told us that he had been offered the position in Portland, ME and would probably be taking it. That took a lot of the wind out of our sails and the rest of the drive home was pretty silent as three spent friends pondered a future without each other.


Mileage: 14.97 Time: 2:07:30 Avg: 6.9 Max: 39.0 Weight: 1

Got a comment or question? Send it to truthmaker24@yahoo.com.

-- Amalgamated TruthMaker Enterprises --