1997 > Climb to Kaiser > Lisa and KenS's Report
Team Bikeaholics continued their exploration of the limits to Bikeaholism with a successful first attempt at a famous regional ultra-hillclimb event, the notorious Climb to Kaiser. This event, now in it's 21st year, is sponsored by the Fresno Cycling Club and features lots of steep climbing (over 12000 ft in 65 miles!), a high altitude pass (9200 ft), and the usual pleasant temperatures characteristic of California's Central Valley in midsummer. The route starts at Letterman Park in the town of Clovis, adjacent to the Fresno State University campus. Following a series of bright, cheery "CK" road markers, it heads straight towards the foothills, and then proceeds up three no-nonsense climbs, some featuring extended grades of 14-16%, towards Kaiser Ridge in the high Sierra. After a brief respite from the valley heat at the top of Kaiser Pass, it returns in a series of steep descents by yet another ridgeline to the Central Valley. Participants included Team Captain Lisa Antonino, Morale Officer Ken Straub, and Double Century Specialist Craig Robertson. The ride is quite popular with the usual crowd of "Ultra" suspects; registration is limited to about 250 riders and is typically sold out well in advance. Like that other famous ultra-ride, the Terrible Two, you only get the jersey if you finish the ride; unlike the TT, there is no official cut-off time.
A partial answer to the question "Just how hot can it get in Fresno in July?" was provided late Friday night, where the sign in front of an S&L bank reported 96° at 8:10 PM. After a quick pre-registration at Letterman Park and a all-too-brief pasta dinner, the Bikeaholics readied themselves for the next morning's 5:30 AM start. Ensconced in their respective motel rooms for the night, the Bikeaholics spent the evening huddled around the 40,000 BTU air conditioning units that are apparently characteristic of all dwellings in Fresno.
The massstart at 5:30 featured a police escort out of town, since the first few miles followed a major four lane thoroughfare, Shaw Avenue, with lots of stop lights and traffic. A few other ultra-rides include an escort at the beginning (the Terrible Two and Eastern Sierra Doubles, for example) but this was definitely the most impressive and effective one we have experienced. It used 2-3 patrol cars & uniformed officers, who leap-frogged each other through successive intersections where they completely blocked off all traffic with flashing red & blue lights until the entire group of riders had passed by.
After 10 mi or so of flat riding the road turned into a narrower country lane, and the first foothills started to come into view. Another 5 mi along Watts Valley Rd. brought us to a series of gentle rollers, and then we began the first real climb of the day, Wildcat Grade. The sun was just starting to announce its presence, but the air temperature was still a very agreeable 70° or so. The climb ascended quite steeply, approaching 13%, and ended with the first rest stop of the day at mile 24. This was a simple, yet pleasant affair, with lots of enthusiastic support people, valet bike parking, and amazingly good food; this set the tone for the rest of the day, at least as far as support! The Bikeaholics began to relax and enjoy themselves--- we finally had signed on to a small, well-supported ride with nice weather and views! Team Captain Lisa changed from her familiar pink & blue "Ceramiche" jersey into a new blue-striped sleeveless model in preparation for the warmer temperatures and was nearly abandoned at the rest stop by fellow Bikeaholics, who claimed they didn't "recognize" her.
The next part of the ride involved a fun, fast descent on a twisty road into Watts Valley, followed by the start of another climb, Burrough Ridge, and then a very long, steep climb on Tollhouse road to the main highway, SR 168. The last section of Tollhouse was really steep, as in 16%, and necessitated the use of gears which had heretofore been designated "For Emergency Use Only!".
Hwy 168 marked the beginning of a distinctly unpleasant section of the course, as it was very heavily trafficked by a long line of pickup trucks, boat trailers, RV's, campers, and weekend fishermen, all intent on getting to Shaver Lake as quickly as possible. We struggled on along the side of the road for about 6 mi, which brought us into a rest stop at the Church of Christ at about 5000 ft. At this point it was still quite early in the day, 10:00 AM, but we still had a lot of climbing left to do. After a somewhat extended R&R (refueling and rehydration), we were off again in search of Shaver Lake. The road meandered along the west shore of the lake, eventually affording some nice views of what all those boat trailers and fishermen were searching for.
After a series of gentle rollers, we finally departed the main road and began a fast descent down a traffic-free, shaded country lane into the village of Big Creek. The main reason for the village (and probably for the road as well) was the existence of a very large hydroelectric power station, and we were entertained by the sounds of moaning turbines and rushing water as we rode by. We also began to get expansive views in various directions, including north towards Yosemite.
The climbing began to once again get serious, as the road ascended a very steep series of switchbacks to the top of Huntington Lake Dam. This climb gained over 2000 ft in 4 mi, and involved a long, extended 16% grade. Emergency gears were once again activated, and we mashed our way to the crest--- "spinning" just wasn't possible on this kind of terrain! In spite of the steep grade and warmer temperatures, Captain Lisa continued to announce that she was "still having a good time" on the ride. (These reports had been coming in on an hourly basis throughout the first part of the ride.) In fact, she informed the team that she wasn't going to accept the jersey at the end of the ride unless she felt a little more "beat up". After the dam the road leveled out, and we cruised into the lunch stop by the shore of Lake Huntington, at 7000 ft. Lunch turned out to be a truly relaxing affair, with sumptious food (including made-to-order sandwiches, pasta salad and fruit!), pleasant scenery, and cool temperatures--- in fact, it was a little too cool in the shade, and the Bikeaholics were forced to sit in the sun to avoid hypothermia. We socialized with a fellow Brevet-rider, Tom Harriman, who had ridden with us the previous weekend on the 600 km ride from Davis to Fort Bragg and back. At this point our confidence in finishing the ride was high, as we were less than 2500 ft from the pass and it was still early in the day.
The post-lunch route followed some rollers along the shores of Huntington Lake, and then made a sharp left turn uphill towards Kaiser Pass. A modest diversion was afforded by watching various elements of the hydroelectric plant, including water cascading through narrow spillways . Another modest diversion was afforded by Ken, who, while thinking about other things, suddenly found himself going way too fast around a corner on the wrong side of the road. Just as he realized his predicament and worked out a 4-part action plan to get himself back on his side of the road, a large urban assault-type vehicle rumbled around the same corner. Both vehicles (Ken and the sport-utility) locked up their brakes, and Ken briefly contemplated life as a hood ornament. Divine intervention prevented any real mishap, and an apologetic but alert Ken and a distinctly unhappy RangeRover continued on their respective ways.
At about 8000 ft the road narrowed sharply, and began a series of narrow, steep switchbacks accompanied by expansive views. The grade continued to steepen, until we were once again at that familiar 16%, using those teeny, tiny (well, teeny & tiny on the crankset, but pretty big on the hub) forbidden gears. When we finally rolled over the pass, we were pretty much too tired to do anything except gasp for air. The enthusiastic support crew really wanted to valet park our bikes and bring us food & drink, but all we wanted to do was collapse and sleep. One of us had a general lack of determination and would rather have collapsed, bike and all, on the dirt at the summit. We dragged ourselves over to a diverse collection of patio furniture and got down to some serious whimpering & whining. Lisa notified the Team that she was no longer having a good time, but that, after a little rest and decrease in altitude, her status might change back to having a moderate amount of fun. By this time it was close to 3:00 PM--- we were surprised and somewhat alarmed to find out that the lead riders had cleared this spot before 11:00 AM! This confirmed our suspicions that there are some serious, fast hillclimb specialists out there.
After a well-deserved R&R, we once again clipped our feet into the pedals and began what was promised as a "fast descent" back to the Central Valley. This was true only for about 10 mi; as we passed along the east side of Huntington Lake we were surprised & alarmed to note that the road went unmistakably "UP" rather than "DOWN". We got out the topo maps, route description, GPS, and inclinometer, and, after a short conference, came to the conclusion that there was indeed a series of uphill components that we were going to have to traverse, and that they even had a name--- Tamarack Ridge. This took the form of four separate climbs, as long as 1-2 miles each. Ordinarily these would have been dealt with in a 53 x 19, or maybe a 39 x 15, but, by now, we immediately reached for those forbidden gears. After what seemed like hours, the road finally tilted downhill and we found ourselves on a fast, sweeping descent to Shaver Lake. After yet another series of rollers, we descended once again and found ourselves back at rest stop #2, the Church of Christ.
At this point we were thoroughly fried, and decided an extended R&R was called for. Craig, who had not brought his lighting system along, decided to make a run for the valley and departed after a few minutes, while the remainder of the Bikeaholics decided that finishing the ride in the dark was really OK, and was in fact preferable to dying while attempting to finish during daylight. Numerous tubes of Gu and several bottles of Ultrafuel later, we decided we were fit enough to press on. This part of the route followed the busy section of Hwy 168 down Pine Ridge, but was steep enough that we could easily keep up with traffic speeds. After 6 mi we turned off onto Auberry Rd, and once again found ourselves on a series of endless uphill rollers. "No doubt about it now, this downhill has a lot of uphill". Finally, after the last of our Gu-supplied energy was nearly exhausted, we suddenly found ourselves going downhill, FAST. The view showed that we were indeed in sight of the valley floor, and the temperature increased rapidly to BLAZING INFERNO intensity (well, maybe not INFERNO, but certainly OPEN PIZZA OVEN intensity). With Camelbaks drained, we crawled into rest stop #9 at the Millerton Store in the village of Prather.
Three elements thoughtfully provided by the Fresno Cycle Club saved us from imminent death by heat stroke: ice cold popsicles, cold towels, and a kiddie pool filled with ice cold water (for soaking feet, not for drinking!). This was truly a strange scene: 5 or 6 listless adults dressed in colorful, skin-tight clothes, sitting silently (except for the occasional gasp or whimper) around a brightly colored kiddie pool in the middle of California's vast Central Valley. Lisa informed the Team that removal of either her Carnacs or helmet would result in a "DNF", and furthermore stated that she was "beat up" enough to accept the coveted finisher's jersey, and was no longer having a good time (but that this opinion might change a week after the ride was finally over). Ken began to think deep existential thoughts, or at least he thought he did. He was snapped back to reality by his teammates, who informed him he was whimpering excessively, and speaking total gibberish.
By now it was nearly 7:00 PM, the air temperature had begun to abate a little, and we decided it was time for the last 15 mi push. Accompanied by another rider, a veteran of numerous "CK's", we formed a ragged pace line and moved out into a brisk, hot headwind. Thankfully the rollers soon dissipated, and we found ourselves at last on a dead-level, straight valley road. Moans and groans were heard from the Bikeaholics as saddle sores and abrasions became more and more painful. Lisa noticed a repetitious thumping sound and attributed it to "washboarding" of the road, since a quick examination of her rear wheel gave no indication of a problem. At one of the traffic lights as we approached Clovis, a more thorough examination revealed that the tire was severely damaged, and was getting worse with each mile. At this point, we were close enough to walk to the finish (editor's note: maybe in street shoes, but not in Carnacs!), and Lisa prayed the tire would make it the remaining distance. The usual clutter of housing developments and roadside businesses began to appear, and we made the final turn onto Villa Ave. We stumbled back into Letterman Park at about 8:00, accompanied by the cheers of that ever-present, enthusiastic support crew.
Our appetites returned as we detected the aroma of barbequed chicken. The food at the finish of the ride was superb. In addition to chicken, there was chili, hamburgers, salad, rolls, and good ol' American peach pies. We socialized as best as we could in our brain-damaged state, claimed our Climb to Kaiser jerseys, and stumbled out onto the now-dark road for the ride back to the motel along busy Shaw Ave.
SummaryIf you're ever cruising around Fresno alone on your bike, and you spot this sign on the pavement, DON'T follow it unless you have a full Camelbak and several jersey pockets worth of Gu! Seriously, this is a serious ride. It is EXTREMELY well-supported, comparable to the Terrible Two. It's also about as hard... We might even recommend it!