Ride Recap: New Year’s Diablo

Just Chillin’

In the early days of Different Spokes there was no New Year’s Day ride. Akos Szoboslay did lead a New Years overnight mountain bike camping ride in Henry Coe State Park in 1984; needless to say he didn’t get a good turnout. Sharon Lum led New Year’s rides in the South Bay in 2000 and 2001. They were easy 30ish mile rides meant to open up the new year gently. It wasn’t until 2012 when I posted the Resolution Ride for New Years—go all the way to the top of Diablo and back—that we seem to have found an annual New Year’s ride. Since then either I or David Sexton and Gordon Dinsdale have led this ride. We’ve had an incredible string of good luck because it hasn’t rained on New Year’s day yet. A few years ago we were greeted by snow on the side of the road near the top; I have another recollection that one year there was black ice near the top—talk about a scary descent!

Going up Diablo on New Years is hardly a novel idea. As I’ve mentioned in the past Grizzly Peak Cyclists, Valley Spokesmen, and Diablo Cyclists all do it too. A couple of years ago we ran into Bill Bushnell, who used to be our Ride Coordinator in the late 90s, leading his recumbent club up Diablo. Various local racing clubs also do it as an informal clobberfest to open up the new year. I understand that in the South Bay Mt. Hamilton acts as a similar monument to climbing gluttony on NYD.

There is a sense of accomplishment and of having performed a “feat” by going up Diablo. It’s probably due partly to the significant elevation gain (about 4,000 ft. or over 1,000 meters), partly due to the at-times punishing grade, and partly due to the fact that Diablo stands alone in the East Bay and so affords expansive and majestic views in all directions from the top. Mt. Tam is similar but it’s a much smaller mountain, more than 1,000 feet lower in height; Mt. Hamilton is taller than Diablo but is hemmed in by surrounding hills as well as its slightly taller twin Copernicus Peak, which is just up the road and thus the views are more mundane. On a crisp, clear day with good air quality you can see the Sierras from the top of Diablo and I’ve been fortunate to experience that. The Sierras are much, much higher and when covered in snow they form an incredible backdrop above the San Joaquin Valley.

Today seven of us opened up the New Year by heading up Diablo. As usual it was frigid cold. It was in the high 30s when I got up and by the time we left Pleasant Hill BART it was roughly in the mid-40s. A high wind advisory was set to expire at 10 am. Winds had been gusting on Diablo at up to 65 mph. Unfortunately it was only the advisory that expired this morning and not the wind as we discovered. This year David Goldsmith teamed with Gordon to lead it as least until David came down with a cold and convinced Roger Sayre to take his place. Roger and I went along as well as Ron Lezell, Donald Cremers, and David Sexton.

In keeping with tradition we didn’t leave on time. Roger S, who hitherto had always driven to ride starts outside the City, ventured to use BART. Unfortunately he got on the wrong train and ended up heading to Pleasanton rather than Pleasant Hill. But arrive he did and that’s a good thing since he was one of the two hosts.

Everyone was dressed to the nines even though this was far from the coldest New Year’s Day. Dressing to go up Diablo in the winter is a conundrum: if you dress to start warm, you’ll inevitably sweat like a pig going up. But if you dress for climbing, you will freeze at the top only to freeze even more fiercely on the descent. On days like today where we discovered a chilling gale on the way up it was even more imperative to have some additional clothing. I was wearing a long-sleeve base layer under a neoprene winter jacket; over that I had a fleece vest. I had on shorts and thick tights. Under my helmet I had skull cap; I wore glove liners inside my winter gloves; I had thick wool socks and full shoe covers. I also brought along a neck gaiter and a helmet cover for the descent and some heater packs for my gloves. I had a daypack for the donuts (more on that later) and because it covered my back it would provide more insulation. And this is less clothing than I’ve worn in the past!

Sure enough as we climbed up North Gate one by one we each pulled over and took off layers. And it wasn’t as if we were racing up the hill either. I got hot enough that I even took off my gloves and rode with bare hands. Going up each time we hit a curve exposed to the wind roiling around the mountain we caught a sideways gust that did not bode well for the summit. We were all spread out over the mountain but eventually Roger and I caught the wheel of a big guy with Livermore Cyclery kit and three guys from the Hercules Cycling Club (nice kit!). It was nice to have some other bodies to cut the wind and we all rolled up to the Junction together.

At the Junction it was the usual mosh pit with crowds converging up both North and South Gate Roads. I overheard one woman saying it was 27 degrees at the top but I’m not sure I believed her. What I did believe is the wind—it was bone chilling and cut right through my jacket! There really wasn’t a good place to escape the wind. I tried huddling next to the ranger station but the wind was changing direction. Roger and I had hauled up thermoses of coffee and hot water to make hot chocolate as well as donuts. The inspiration was a comment a few weeks ago by David Goldsmith that he’ll always remember the New Year’s Day ride up Diablo when Roger met us at the Junction with a trunk full of homemade maple scones and coffee. Well, donuts from Safeway aren’t of the same caliber but after climbing a couple thousand feet in the cold just about anything with sugar, fat, salt, and chocolate—not to mention some caffeine—is going to be treated like manna from heaven. We got them out and they were consumed eagerly. Coincidentally the Mt. Diablo State Park rangers also decided to treat cyclists this morning by setting up a table with…coffee and donuts! The non-Spokers were scarfing them up like..well, like cyclists. If we had known, we could have spared ourselves trouble of hauling up all that weight. But it was nice to see the good will gesture from the Park. There was a time not too long ago when the rangers didn’t seem sympathetic to cyclists and were more content to dole out tickets to us rather than going after cars that were speeding.

Roger and I decided to head down rather than tackle the last 1,700 feet. If the wind was up, I was going to get pretty chilled. We saw one smart cyclist descending with both a windbreaker and wind pants over her garb. I just didn’t feel like pushing my luck today so half a mountain was just right. Donald decided he’d had enough too but the other four wanted to get to the top. So we split up. The three of us did a leisurely descent and surprisingly it seemed that almost all of the other cyclists were taking it slow as well. I’m usually passed by quite a few on the descent, being a conservative descender (I’ve crashed enough, thank you very much) but that was not the case today. Car traffic was respectful too. I don’t like to hold up traffic and will pull off the road if need be. But cars didn’t seem to be impatient. Perhaps all the PR work on Mt. Diablo about not passing cyclists on blind curves is finally paying dividends.

It was pretty obvious that today the better choice was to go up North Gate and down South Gate: cyclists coming up South Gate were struggling with the north headwind while we were gliding along at 20 mph in seemingly still air. Despite having put the heater packs in my gloves my fingers were still frigid and my toes weren’t doing that great either. The tailwind reduced the chill factor or it would have been worse. Despite the chill we pass an amazing sight: a man in cut-off jeans and no shirt climbing up. What was he on?? At least he hadn’t turned pink yet. Maybe he was planning to warm up at the top with a few bong hits.

In Danville we stopped at Homegrown, one of the few restaurants open on New Year’s, for some soup before rolling up Danville Blvd. and the Iron Horse back to BART. Nice way to begin the year and we weren’t even tired!