1997 > Devil Mountain Double > Tom's Report

Devil Mountain Double:
Saturday, April 19, 1997

E/5/205 (18 kft of climbing)

Correspondent: Tom Lawrence

3:00 AM

I jump out of bed at the first sound of the alarm clock, rush into the bathroom and turn on all of the lights including the sunlamp. It is a ritual that I have developed with innumerable early morning wakeup calls. After a few minutes in the intense bright light, I am fully awake. To be honest, it is not clear that I was ever asleep. I remember lying in bed thinking (stressing?) about the next day's event until at least 1am. The event is the second annual Devil Mountain Double (DMD), the self proclaimed "tough new kid on the block" of the California Triple Crown double century series. "Tough" would be putting it mildly. At 205 miles with 18,000 ft of climbing, DMD promises to be by far the most difficult organized bike ride in the San Francisco Bay area, making even the infamous Mr. Bill's Nightmare look tame by comparison. As I dress, I repeat my mantra: "slow and steady wins the race". Of course, winning is not even an option for me, I'll be quite happy just to finish, erasing my "DNF" from last year's inaugural event when I was one of 7 riders who abandoned out of a total of 12 starters.

After a sleepy 45 minute drive from Mountain View, I arrive at the luxurious Marriott in San Ramon, site of the start/finish. There is some confusion as to when the ride actually begins, and it turns out that a last minute organizatinal change allows riders to start at either 5am or 6am depending on how long they expect to take to complete the ride. I elect to take the 6am start since my intended riding partner, Thomas Maslen, has signed up for 6am and is nowhere to be found. The weather has been gloomy for the previous few days, and I debate what to wear on the bike while awaiting the 6am start. I finally decide that no warm clothing is needed, and hope that I am right.

At 5:45, as dawn begins to break, the riders all assemble at the start. George Pinney, the ride organizer, goes over some important last minute details with us, then suddenly we are off. The first challenge of the day is to ascend Mt. Diablo, a spectacular cone-shaped hill in the East Bay rising to 3849 ft. It's nothing too steep, but still requires a sustained effort. Luckily, we have a few miles to warm up before the base of the hill. As we cruise swiftly through the sleeping valley, I have to continually remind myself to slow down. "Slow and steady.." I repeat. How difficult it is to go slow when the adrenaline is flowing and the legs are fresh. After briefly losing contact with Thomas, I rejoin him a mile or so from the base of the hill. He is undecided on whether he is riding to finish, or just riding to see how far he can get. I state categorically that I am riding to finish, and encourage him to do the same. He would later thank me for these words.

Ascending Mt. Diablo, I am reminded of taking off in an airplane in foul weather, only in extreme slow motion. As we start the climb, a gray gloom hangs over us at about 1000 ft. The road stretches up into the distance, vanishing suddenly into the mist. As we approach cloud level, the valley begins to disappear ever so gradually. Now we are in the thick of it, and everything is soaking wet. No rain is actually falling, but water is accumulating on my gear. I grow concerned for my cyclometer which has a nasty habit of shutting off when it gets wet. I would really like to know my average speed over the course of the ride and I begin to plot backup plans in case the delicate electronics are not up to the task. Luckily the backup plan is not needed. At 2000 ft we are suddenly in the clear, with a splendid view of the summit above. Looking up, I can spot tiny cyclists winding their way up the switchbacks above me. Are they very slow 5am starters or very fast 6am starters?

At the summit we are treated to the best views of the day, as well as to the first rest stop. I snack on bananas and stuff a few kudos bars in my jersey pocket for possible later emergencies. The view from Mt. Diablo is something that you just have to experience for yourself, it is not something that can be put into words. It is this mountain that got me interested in cycling in the first place. When I first moved to the Bay Area, my roommate at the time, who had grown up in the town of Diablo at the foot of the mountain, got me out there on a bike one day and talked me up the mountain. The rest is history.

The temperature at nearly 4000 ft is decidedly not to my liking, and I conclude that getting off the mountain is more important than waiting for Thomas to finish eating. I descend alone. The switchbacks are fast and fun, but my shivering is so intense that my back is aching severly by the time I get to the bottom. How ironic that the descent should be more physically unpleasant than the climb.

The descent takes us down North Gate Rd into Walnut Creek where I encounter the first of the delightfully few semi-urban sections of the ride. My legs are tight from the long climb followed by the frigid descent, and I struggle to find a comfortable pace. The traffic is fast and heavy and I grow impatient to get off the beaten path again. It is along this section that I have my first unpleasant wildlife encounter of the day. I spot a lost duckling in the road. As I approach, it scurries into the ditch, stumbling and falling among fist-sized chunks of rock, chirping loudly. The mother is nowhere to be seen. I want to help, but I know there is nothing I can do. It is doomed.

The heavy traffic ends finally as I turn off onto Morgan Territory Rd, which will be the second climb of the day. Skirting along the northeastern flank of Mt. Diablo, it follows a tree shrouded stream bed through scenic ranch land up to its high point at Morgan Territory Regional Preserve. The road is a series of flat sections punctuated with short sharp climbs, in stark contrast to the long steady even grade of Mt. Diablo. This calls for an entirely different riding style, and when at last towards the end I come to a long steady grade, I find it difficult to adjust back again. At one point, the road is slick with dew and I am reminded of mountain biking as I cannot stand without spinning my rear wheel. I must remain seated to maintain traction.

The second rest stop of the day arrives shortly after the 50 mile mark, at the entrance to the preserve. We are treated to food and drink and I eagerly take advantage of the restrooms. "One quarter done" I think to myself. So far I am maintaining an average speed that will get me to the finish within my desired time, and that in spite of the fact that I have already done the biggest single climb of the day. Knock on wood. I stuff down as much melon as I can get my hands on, refill my Camelback and head out.

The road climbs another quarter of a mile to the summit, then I begin the descent. I suddenly remember that I have not put on any sunblock yet and the sun is quite high in the sky by now. I pull off into a ranch driveway, take off helmet and gloves and start covering myself with lotion. A lone Australian cattle dog ambling down the road stops to investigate. Unlike most cyclists, I have nothing but affection for dogs and we sit together for a moment before continuing our respective wanderings.

The southern descent of Morgan Territory Rd. can only be described as breathtaking. The road seems to fall away before me, with steep rolling green pasture on either side. Directly ahead is the Livermore Valley. To the left, I can see Altamont pass, my next destination, and Tracy in the distance beyond. To the right I look back on Pleasanton and San Ramon, where we started. The descent is very fast, with relatively few sharp turns requiring the use of brakes. The road is a blur with cattle and a few houses zipping by in my peripheral vision. It is over much too soon, and suddenly I am in the Livermore Valley, the only totally flat section of the course. A normally respectable 20 mph seems like a snail's pace after the descent.

For the next 6 or so miles the course follows a series of 90 degree turns, zig-zagging its way from the bottom of Morgan Territory Rd. to the bottom of Altamont Pass. At the base of Altamont, we enter (of all things) a bicycle race course. It turns out that the Wente Vineyards Classic Road Race is being held today, and their course and ours overlap. Luckily this has been anticipated by the organizers of both events, and complete confusion is avoided. Our course is clearly marked with the initials DMD and an arrow spray painted on the road at all turns, and their course is indicated by signs and flag-toting course officials. I expect to be overtaken by a pack of hammerheads while on the racecourse, but to my disappointment when the two courses diverge a few miles further on, I have not yet seen a single racer.

Altamont Pass is decidedly much too easy. Perhaps I am just remembering last year, when the temperatures on this section of the course soared well into the 100s. Perhaps it is the tailwind. I average 18 mph up the pass, wondering all the while when the climbing will begin. When the summit arrives I am in disbelief. I remind myself however that the course will shortly return in the opposite direction and that the tailwind will become a headwind. For now though, I thoroughly enjoy the assist as I sail down the gentle grade on the other side. Altamont pass is clearly a very windy place most days, as it is the site of a rather expansive wind farm. Turbines churn away in the breeze, generating surplus electricity. Observing the different models, one can guess at the evolution of the technology. The newest looking ones, perhaps state of the art, resemble immense airplane propellers.

At the bottom of Altamont, the course makes a wide u-turn and returns back over Patterson Pass into the Livermore Valley. Patterson appears to be the steepest grade we have yet encountered, but it is unclear how much of this impression is just the effect of the stiff headwind. In any case extra leverage is needed and I am thankful for having adjusted my saddle a centimeter rearward before the ride. Once again I am surrounded by turbines, but this time I have much more time to examine each individual one. Like a true engineer, I amuse myself with the thought that the turbines are taking momentum out of the wind that would otherwise be slowing me down. In a strange sort of indirect way, the electricity that they are generating is making me go faster! I encounter other riders for the first time since Morgan Territory Preserve and we exchange some thoughts on the climb. One rider, observing my "Terrible Two" jersey, comments

"Well it's not as bad as Ft. Ross".

"Yeah, nice little hill" I reply, as casually as possible, legs burning.

Descending the other side of Patterson, we once again enter the road race course. This time, I spot a few racers, but I am disappointed to see that they are as tired as myself and going no faster. Finally towards the bottom I am treated to a trio of women who zip past me in an elegantly executed rotating echelon. One of them approves loudly of my aforementioned jersey before they disappear down the road. The scenery turns from wind farms to vineyards as I reach the bottom of the pass and leave the race course. After another flat mile or so I arrive at the third rest stop of the day where I once again overindulge myself in melon and diversify a bit with chocolate chip cookies.

Our next challenge, Mines Rd, is where the course gets really scenic. From Livermore to San Jose, one travels nearly 70 miles through sparsely populated ranch land with only one intersection. As I leave Livermore, my legs are once again very stiff from too much time at the rest stop. Luckily there are a few miles of flat before we get to the start of the climbing and I am able to warm up again. The road follows a stream bed up a canyon, but rather than stay at the level of the stream in the bottom of the canyon, the road initially climbs steeply several hundred feet up the canyon wall, and then continues nearly flat for several miles while the stream rises beneath it. This section is fast and fun. It is mostly level, but the constant turns around the terrain of the canyon wall and the dropoff to the right make it far more interesting than ordinary flat riding. Once the road and stream meet up again, the stream flattens considerably so we still don't climb much, but the terrain stays just as interesting with constant tight turns. I encounter another rider who wonders out loud when the climbing is going to start. I am thinking the same thing but don't dare say anything lest Murphy's Law place a steep grade around the next bend. Finally we come to the climbing, but it is very short and a few hundred feet and one double summit later, we are descending toward lunch.

At the intersection of San Antonio Valley Rd. (formerly Mines Rd.) and Del Puerto Canyon Rd, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, there is a small cafe. Rather than provide lunch for the riders, the DMD organizers pay for each rider to get one sandwich at the cafe, in addition to the ordinary rest stop fare. I order a sandwich and fries and sit down for a much needed rest. We have done 116 miles so far, with the most difficult hills yet to come. I rehydrate and stuff down as many little salty things as I can. Eventually my sandwich arrives. I am disappointed by its size, but it tastes delicious and I devour it in record time, then set about consuming the fries at a more civilized pace. The outdoor patio is lively with conversation, with an interesting mixture of lycra clad cyclists, leather clad motorcyclists, an assortment of plain-clothed folk out for a weekend drive and of course our ride support personnel. A few dogs watching for spills and handouts round out the scene. We bask in the sun as long as we can, enjoying the setting. Finally, it is time to get back on the bike and get about the business of the second half of the ride.

Pulling away from the junction cafe, my legs are as tight as can be imagined. I am once again grateful for the several miles of flat terrain which allow me to warm up gradually. The steep canyon has given way to a wide valley with ample pasture on either side of the road. As if the cattle weren't evidence enough, cattle guards in the road every few miles attest to the fact that this is ranch land. On uphills the cattle guards are a nuisance but when encountered in a descent they can be cleared easily with a bunny hop. After a few miles the road turns sharply to the right and rises abruptly a few hundred feet before settling down again. The number of houses visible from the road is increasing. We are once again approaching civilization rather than leaving it.

After a few more rolling miles we arrive at the foot of our next big test, the back side of Mt. Hamilton. The highest paved peak in the bay area, Mt. Hamilton rises 4208 ft. above San Jose. At its summit sits Lick Observatory, home of the world's second largest refracting telescope. The road on the front side of the mountain was graded gently enough for horses to drag all of the construction materials for the observatory up the mountain. The road on the back side had no such constraint, however, and we are treated to our most difficult climb so far in the ride. After a false start and a short descent the road heads up in earnest. Endless switchbacks can be seen above, but I can make out only a few riders. At this point in the ride we are all quite spread out. As I approach one rider, I feel competitive urges coming on. I have to remind myself that this isn't a race, I'm trying to have fun. My legs remind me that I am 130 miles and probably more than 10000 ft into the ride. Passing the rider I have a sudden sense of deja-vu when, eying my jersey, he comments

"Well it's not as bad as Skaggs Springs".

Am I in the twilight zone or do I keep running into the same wise guy?

The summit of Hamilton finally arrives but I am too sore to enjoy the view. I do stop to stretch my back before starting the descent, wary of a repeat of the back pains I experienced during the chilly descent of Diablo. The temperature is only marginally warmer, even now in the late afternoon, and I know I will shiver and tense up on the descent. The problem is solved with occasional very brief stops to stand up straight and relax my back muscles. The descent is more fun than usual, and I find myself ripping through the corners with unaccustomed speed and confidence. Could my new saddle position, designed to give me more climbing leverage, also be improving my balance while descending? I'll have to keep this position for a while and see. Midway down the mountain I have my second unpleasant wildlife encounter of the day. Rounding a righthand turn, I am suddenly surprised by a squirrel which darts into the road. With no time to react, I run squarely over it. The experience is shocking to say the least. I feel the two thumps intimately as each wheel hits the squirrel. Looking back I see that it is not moving and I continue quickly on, afraid to stop in case it is still alive. I swear loudly for several minutes afterwards, feeling awful.

At the base of Hamilton we arrive at the fifth rest stop, on Crothers Rd. just above Alum Rock Park. I catch up with Bill Halleck at this point. Bill is one of the funniest people I know and I have accused him in the past of cracking jokes on group rides to throw the other riders off their pace. He is in good form at the rest stop, keeping the support folks entertained. We swallow down what we can in anticipation of the next climb. It is dinnertime, and we are tantalized with tales of lasagna waiting for us at the finish line, but for the moment the best we seem able to find is a cup of noodles. I am disappointed. I collect my lights and warm jersey, delivered for me to this rest stop, and head on out.

After a very brief intrusion into the edge of San Jose, the second moderately urban area of the ride, we once again head for the hills. The time of reckoning has arrived. At mile 150, we are about to tackle Sierra Rd, by far the hardest climb of the day. We will climb 1800 ft in a little over 3 miles. I am unable to keep my butt on the saddle as I hit the first steep section, but standing sends my heartrate through the roof. I can feel my pulse throbbing in my neck. I make a point of slowing when I stand to keep the heartrate down but it helps little. I remind myself that I don't have to do the whole hill in one shot, resting is allowed. But I keep the rests very brief so the legs don't have a chance to notice that they aren't moving anymore. Above me, Bill and another rider are slowly making their way up a switchback, their profiles straining against the grade. They are moving incredibly slowly. Evidently I am moving no faster, since I do not catch them. A quick glance over my shoulder surprises me. I am amazed at how much we have already climbed. The road seems to leap out of San Jose. Another slow motion airplane takeoff.

With the summit comes the immense satisfaction (relief?) that there are no major climbs remaining, although there are two minor ones. As the road crests the hill, we suddenly find ourselves in a decidedly alpine setting, with steep green pasture all around and cows everywhere. All that is missing are the characteristic cowbells. As I begin to descend I find my path blocked by an adult cow and several calves in the road. They are boxed in by steep embankments on either side, and as I approach they decide to make a break for it down the pavement. I make it obvious that I want the left side of the road and they happily oblige me, getting as far to the right as they can, but there is still not sufficient room to pass safely at the speed we are going. Finally we come to a turnout and the mother pulls over, calves in tow.

The descent of Sierra/Felter Rd is swift and fun, with a beautiful view of the Calaveras Reservoir to our right. With a hard right turn followed by a very short but extremely steep climb, we begin Calaveras Rd. which will skirt along the reservoir for several miles. The road is a cyclist's nightmare, or at least it is this cyclist's nightmare at this point in this ride. It seems to be an endless series of ups and downs, with each down ending in a hairpin turn making it impossible to carry one's momentum into the coming upgrade. Finally we are rewarded with the long gradual descent from the end of the reservoir into Sunol, our next rest stop. The descent is gentle enough that we have to pedal, but we are pedaling at 25mph and the feeling is exhilarating. Darkness falls as we approach Sunol and I switch on my lights as traffic once again begins to increase.

At the rest stop in Sunol night has fallen. I overindulge in melon once again and top it off with a healthy dose of little salty things. The finish line complete with lasagna dinner is only 25 miles away. I want it now! Leaving the rest stop, we must first negotiate several miles on the heavily traveled Niles Canyon Rd. before once again leaving the beaten path. I don't much enjoy Niles Canyon even in daylight. The cars are fast and impatient and the shoulder comes and goes. Bill, another Bill and I form a paceline with me at the rear. My light is so dim compared to theirs that it is hard to tell that it is on. I will have to invest in some new technology one of these days. The ride is tricky, visibility is poor and the cars are numerous. I am thankful for my rear view mirror. At one point I slam violently into an unseen pothole. The surprise makes me shout out loud. A flat tire in this location would be very unpleasant, to say nothing of a bent wheel. I cannot see my tires in the dark so I purposely run over a little bump every few minutes to feel for any softening. There is none. As we finally arrive at the turnoff, we are treated to a vast expanse of broken glass littering the full width of the road. There is no good way through the mess. As we make the turn, Bill #2 loses traction on his rear tire and very nearly goes down. It has been a hairy few miles.

Palomares Rd. is a major improvement over Niles Canyon, and turns out to be one of the most pleasant roads of the day, in spite of the fact that we are once again climbing. We cannot see much in the darkness other than the road in front of us, but we are riding up a small canyon with a very busy stream rushing down it. We are moving slowly and there is no traffic so we switch off our lights and enjoy the calm of the night. Besides conversation, little can be heard other than the rushing water and the occasional dog sounding the alarm as we intrude upon its territory. As we climb, the nearly full moon makes an appearance, and a bit farther on we are treated to a hazy view of comet Hale-Bopp. After a while the pleasantness of the road begins to give way to fatigue, and nobody complains when at last we reach the summit and begin our descent into Castro Valley. The descent is fast and fun. Darkness always seems to increase one's sensation of speed while at the same time eliminating all fear since one can't see anything to be afraid of. I am first, with Bill Halleck directly behind me. His light is much brighter than mine and I cast a long shadow directly ahead of myself. I can see the road on either side of me but not directly ahead where I am actually riding. Luckily there are reflective bumps on either side of the lane. I am reminded of the early 1980s video driving game in which the road is depicted as just a series of dots approaching on either side.

At the bottom of Palomares Rd. we arrive in Castro Valley, the third and last semi-urban section of the ride. We make our way through traffic lights and busy intersections to the base of Crow Canyon Rd. Crow Canyon is a very busy road, but the shoulder is wide and we have no problems. Besides, we are only 8 miles from the finish and nothing can bother us now. We turn off onto Norris Canyon Rd, our final climb for the day. Just one more little hill and we are there! Optimism is short-lived however as we get to the steep section of the climb. I begin to realize that this ride has taken more out of me than any other I have done. I am closer to breaking now than I have been in a very long time. The end is so close and yet seems so far away. A huge hill looms up ahead of us in the darkness. The road can't possibly go up there can it? I comment that there must be a reason why this is called Norris Canyon and not Norris Pass. Surely the road will stay low. A car speeds past us and just as it disappears from view, only a few hundred yards ahead of us, we can see it begin to descend. The summit is so close we are practically upon it, but we can't see it because of the darkness!

Victory is sweet as we arrive at the finish line. The timekeepers note our official arrival time: 10:20pm. I am exhausted. I click off my stopwatch at a final elapsed time of 16:27 - my longest double century time ever. One of the timekeepers produces a bottle of bubbly and pours us 3 celebratory cups. Not thinking clearly, I balk at the prospect of alcohol, but of course it is just sparkling juice. What a great touch! I finish off the bottle with a second cup. In spite of all of the anticipation I am too tired to go eat lasagna. I still have a 45 minute drive ahead of me and I am eager to get home. My "DNF" from last year has been erased, my job here is done.

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