This past Sunday was our foray up Mines Road just south of Livermore. Of course this road has been there since forever but it didn’t become a regular club ride until Stephanie Clarke started championing it around 2010. I recall in the early days of the club doing Mines Road once, maybe twice. But it wasn’t a popular ride attracting repeat business probably because it can be infernally hot for much of the year. Somehow David Gaus got hooked on it too and then this ride was led annually. For a certain segment of the club Mines Road became a thing, a must-do ride.
Personally Mines never left a deep impression on me, at least one that was positive. Even today Mines strikes me as a perverse route: the uphill feels like a downhill and the downhill feels like an uphill. Why is that? Mines starts climbing steeply but a long middle section is a very gentle uphill that feels almost flat and on which you can roll with speed. The two subsequent uphills before you get to the Junction Cafe aren’t long or super-steep but they remind you, “Oh, I’m on a climb!” Then comes a descent to the Junction Cafe. Conversely the so-called “descent” starting at the Junction is a rather grating uphill: you’ve just finished lunch—maybe one of those burgers—and having to immediately start ascending feels like drudgery. After a short descent you do this all over again to the second summit. Then you hit the ‘flat’ that seems to go on forever. But even that’s work because the pièce de résistance is the afternoon headwind. I’ve never ridden Mines without a headwind on the downhill, which is a natural buzzkill—why am I working so hard to go downhill? Well, that downhill is nearly flat and the wind is usually ferocious enough to bring you to a complete standstill unless you apply some force to the pedals. The everpresent headwind is probably due to a primarily north/northwest wind blowing up Mines Road combined with valley heating which drives air upvalley. Regardless of the cause it’s nearly unavoidable. Eventually you do get to a real downhill—two sections actually—enough to overcome the headwind and finally get relief and enjoyment. But by this time you’re nearly at the bottom so it feels a little too wham-bam-thank-you-Sam. Uh, after that you don’t want a second date, do you?
Not to spoil the punchline but that formula held to a T on our ride. Other not-so-good stuff also took place such as leg cramps from too much climbing and not enough conditioning, and the fact that I was suffering from food poisoning due to the previous night’s dinner. But all was not lost. This ride turned out to be a revelatory experience. First, the weather was incredibly good. This late in the year Mines is usually already heating up. Any time after April is a gamble. But it was sunny with almost no clouds, no heat, and the predicted winds hadn’t picked up speed yet. Great for climbing! Second, since it was only Stephanie and Roger H and I we got a good opportunity to catch up on nearly a year’s worth of news due to the Pandemic. Stephanie’s endlessly cheerful (well, who couldn’t be on that beautiful custom Seven she gets to ride!) and unperturbable. She paced us up to the Junction and pushed me to try to stay with her. But she wasn’t going so fast that I had to go deep—I just had to step it up a bit more. I thought I couldn’t keep up but somehow I did. Well, until the leg cramps hit.
Third, we began the ride without much hope of seeing wildflowers. But just a few miles from the Junction there they were, not in profusion but present and beautiful in color. Alas, a drought year’s crop. Their backdrop was surprising: an incinerated horizon. The higher we went on Mines, the deeper we entered last summer’s SCU Lightning Complex fire zone. You can’t see its scars at all from Livermore, the hints of the conflagration only appearing much higher up. They increase slowly—a glimpse of charred trees and brush, blackened wood—then it’s bigger and bigger sections on the east side climbing up the hillside. As you get close to the Junction the burn zone is suddenly on the left and the right, the fire having jumped the road, then the landscape becomes denuded of live trees, only blackened trunks against the horizon. Ironically when you reach the CalFire station on the upper reaches, everything but the fire station and its housing was destroyed—it makes sense they’d save their own buildings if only so they could keep fighting fires.
The past few weeks have unintentionally turned out to be a tour of the Bay Area wildfires. Napa and the Franz Valley were hit by the Tubbs fire in 2017 and then the Glass fire last year; we saw burned landscapes on the east side of Silverado Trail, with a couple that hopped the road. On the Winters ride we witnessed the burn throughout Pleasants Valley Road caused by the LNU Lightning Complex fire. In each case I wasn’t prepared for what I saw, being taken aback by the extent of the destruction.
It’s a trope that wildfires and their sequelae are now the new normal in Northern California. The 1989 Oakland Hills fire, which we thought could never be equaled short of a nuclear firestorm was surpassed by the Tubbs up in Napa in 2017, and then that one was surpassed by the Camp fire near Chico in 2018. These are all locales that we enjoy cycling. How could we not be affected by their loss?
For now Mines is still there and the wildflowers are sure to return (as long as we get rain). But for the near future—certainly for the remainder of my life—we will be cycling in a changed landscape with a somber reminder that all that beauty is ephemeral and evanescent.