Why ride a bicycle to the top of Mt. Diablo on New Years Day? It’s certainly not a unique idea: all the local clubs—Valley Spokesmen, Grizzly Peak Cyclists, and Diablo Cyclists—all had rides up Diablo on January 1 as did we, Different Spokes. It is perhaps the purest expression of hope, a cyclist’s New Years resolution: to a better year of cycling however one conceives it. For me it was the hope of finally putting to end a chronic knee injury that has at times literally had me hobbling over the past three years. I know there are others of you who are similarly dealing with long-term injuries. For others it is the hope of achieving more goals on the bike, perhaps riding more miles, going faster, doing your first century, or just losing weight and becoming fitter.
David Sexton, Doug Dexter, and Gordon Dinsdale joined me on January 1 to ride to the top. Apparently the four of us (unlike some of you!) had not spent New Year’s Eve carousing and getting inebriated. If I had been as wise as David Gaus, I would have posted the ride as a New Year’s Eve ride, as he did last year, and perhaps others with party plans might have braved the mountain without a hangover. But the symbolic value of rising early on the first day of the year to climb almost 4,000 feet would have been muted.
Posting a ride in early January is always a crapshoot because of the unpredictability of rain and icy conditions. But this Saharan winter has meant we can ride with little fear of getting wet and frozen. Even so, all of us came out with a little bit more clothing than the forecast would recommend simply because it seemed unbelievably warm. Last year there was ice on our back deck on the morning we climbed; this year it was 59 degrees at the Junction and at the summit! This morning it was sunny and almost cloud-free with only the pallor of smog dimming the horizon due to the wind-free dry weather and an inversion that spurred a Spare The Air alert.
Just as last year we started out at Walnut Creek BART and took the North Gate Road up and South Gate down. People debate which is more difficult, ascending by North Gate or South Gate, and I’ve always thought that the latter was harder. But this morning going up North Gate that seemed steeper. It was the first time I had noticed that North Gate actually had some short, steep ramps that went into double-digits and had me reaching for the granny. I think each of us was just content to get up the hill at whatever pace we were comfortable holding. Somehow I ended up ahead of the others, so perhaps the others engaged in pleasant bantering while climbing. But I was panting!
Although not as numerous as on a century, there were plenty of cyclists heading up the hill, more than I’ve ever seen before. At the junction there were easily fifty or so cyclists catching their breath. Roger was there with the coffee and maple scones, which he had just baked, same as last year. Last year it was so cold that we all forewent going to the top, but not this year. The junction is not just a convenient place to catch one’s breath but also a logical turning point: the road steepens above. But the party atmosphere and the great weather had us all eager to do the whole enchilada and not turn back.
While North Gate may be one of the most ‘European’ descents with its back-to-back hairpins, the road above the junction may be one of the most ‘European’ ascents. It traverses the side of Diablo in sweeping turns and most of the time you can see the summit, seemingly just a hop up the hill (but not really). It reminded me of a miniature version of Mt. Ventoux. And it’s hard too! The last section, just a couple hundred yards long, is a brutal 19%. This year a car got stuck on the road, blocking it almost completely. Cyclists had to stop, and once that happened they couldn’t get going again with such a steep gradient. I was one of the lucky ones who managed to scoot by, just barely, and arrive at the top on two wheels and not have to walk.
The view was of course scenic but it was the crowd that made the scene. There must have been 30 or 40 cyclists alone in Grizzly Peak Cyclists kit milling about and maybe a total of a hundred there. The Grizzlies eventually coalesced and posed for a group shot and made quite a sight with a wall of bright yellow jersies.. There we finally ran into Stephanie Clarke, who was there in full Grizzly kit. She had come up via South Gate with half of the Grizzlies (the other half went up North Gate with us).
With so many cyclists the descent was going to be interesting. The road is narrow and steep making passing a mindful effort. Add in cars coming up and down and you have a potent mix for a faux pas. The rangers were out in force making sure no one was speeding, or rather, speeding too much as clearly cyclists were coming down faster than the posted 25 MPH speed limit. I managed to eke past a timid automobile and I am by no means a heroic descender. It was like pinball out there!
We went down South Gate without any drama and David showed us a ‘secret’ cut-off through the Diablo Country Club grounds. From there we went to Danville in search of lunch. I was hoping to nosh at La Boulange but they were closed for the holiday, as was Domenico’s. We ended up at Chow—not a bad choice—where we dined al fresco enjoying the sunshine and warm weather. Did you know that the French fries at Chow are fried twice? David shared that tidbit of culinary news and it did seem to make them taste better! For some reason all of us ended up with fish sandwiches. David and I had the Mexican-style petrale sole, Doug the albacore tuna melt, and Gordon the daily fish special. This was a perfect cycling day: good company, good ride, and then a really good meal. After lunch it was a short, flat run along Danville Boulevard all the way back to Walnut Creek BART.
I had made it the entire way without a single complaint from my knee. Everyone was in good spirits. The year was off to a good start. What else will this year bring? A special thanks to Roger for the scrumptious homemade maple scones and the fresh coffee!