A spur of the moment decision to go to Yosemite in January led to the Feb. 6 ride up Altamont Pass. Being disconsolate at the cancellation of our Austria tour and finally getting cabin fever after almost two years of sheltering mostly in place, we jumped in the car and went to Yosemite Valley for a couple of days. On the way out and back we drove I-680 into the valley and we were mesmerized by the emerald green grass on Altamont—no surprise, I guess, given the inordinate rain in December. This is the time to go, I thought, and began mulling over when would be a good time to ride up there. Of course, silly me, I was thinking that the rains would start up soon since we hadn’t had any for almost two weeks. By February the long range forecast was for “sun, sun, sun, ’til her daddy takes the Colnago away”. Well, there’s no time like the present so up went the ride posting.
The day of the ride was perfect: sunny, absolutely no clouds, and still air albeit chilly. There were seven of us including stalwarts Will, Roger S., and Alan. Alan is new to the club and as I found out also new to cycling. Moving from upstate NY to California apparently meant cycling might just be enjoyable! In any case Alan is a classic case of MAMILs gone wild and he’s grinding out the miles like there’s no tomorrow. Stephanie emerged from her house remodel and other domestic responsibilities to join the ride. In fact I consulted Stephanie while planning the ride because she’s usually the one who’s leading a jaunt up the Altamont hills and I hadn’t ridden up there in two decades or more. Her response was, “oh, any of those roads are great.” A non-Spoker Paul also joined us for his first club ride.
There are only three public roads over Altamont: Patterson Pass Road, Altamont Pass Road, and Tesla/Corral Hollow. We did the first two. But any permutation will do when the hills green up since the roads are primarily used by local traffic while everybody else is either hauling ass or creeping along at five miles per hour on I-680. We went up Patterson to the outskirts of Tracy and then climbed up Altamont to return to Livermore.
Livermore is a city in transition. It’s aspiring to Pleasanton or Danville grandeur but it’s still got farming roots. It already has a sign of greatness: homeless people sleeping in cars at the Livermore library where we parked. With growth pressure breathing down its neck, Livermore is going to be a “big” city in short order. East and north of downtown Livermore is either vineyards or ranch land with a few farms stuck in there for show. Nothing a little rezoning and lots, lots, lots of subdivisions won’t solve… But I digress. We headed east on Tesla Road, which is all wineries and vineyards, and starting climbing at Cross Road, which eventually takes you to Patterson Road where the real fun begins. Cross is a gentle ascent in absolutely deserted grassland. After turning onto Patterson the slope became more severe. It was all so beautiful that I was caught up in the splendor and forget that the grade was creeping up. We started to glimpse wind turbines but today there was no wind to speak of so they were as still as statues. The summit of Patterson was only about eight miles from where we started but the last half-mile was like climbing up a wall. It’s 15-16% just before the pass and that ain’t no momentary blip. Everybody was scrambling for their lowest gear and some were probably wishing for something lower. Suddenly those crazy 46- or 50-tooth rear cogs don’t seem so absurd. Roger H. made it to the top first just in time to snap a shot of Alan who was just behind him.
Everybody made it up fine and we soaked in the view all the way to Tracy: rolling green hills, wind turbines, and powerlines. The descent was crazy fast and everybody else shot off like rockets whereas I creeped down quite cautiously; the pavement is aging chipseal, there’s no shoulder, and the road winds like a snake. On one left curve there was an ominous “15 MPH!” sign obviously placed there because vehicles and cyclists have occasionally done their best Space-X imitation and launched into space. Other than passing the gigantic PG&E Tesla substation it was all beautiful countryside. The road flattened out as we were now in the valley. Usually you head north to the Mountain House community before heading west. But after crossing I-580 the road becomes full of traffic including a fair number of trucks from all the logistics centers in Tracy for companies like Amazon and Costco. But there is an alternate route, the California Aqueduct Bikeway, that gets you off the road away from traffic. In fact we rolled over the Aqueduct and stopped at a Valero gas station at the intersection. I had suggested that people bring snacks because I didn’t think there were any services on the route. But the Valero proved to be a veritable cornucopia of delectable gas station food. The Valero was doing its best Costco imitation with aisles that had to be the longest I’ve ever seen in a gas station convenience store. The temptation was too great and just about everyone piled in to use the restroom and, uh, stock up. The front window was advertising their “Krispy Krunchy fried chicken”. I was going to buy some but the thought of hurling all that good food on Altamont restrained me. In Roger S.’s case it didn’t and he emerged with a five-piece bag to gnaw on. Next door was a taqueria, which I’ll try the next time, as well as a Subway and a Wienerschnitzel. I’m telling you this oasis has everything you need.
Suitably restocked we turned around and turned onto the Aqueduct Bikeway, which has a gate under which you can carefully roll your bike. Only Will had been on the Bikeway before, long ago when he was training for double centuries. Stephanie, who knows this area like the back of her hand, had never taken it before. The pavement was surprisingly rideable: aging chip seal, slightly bumpy but wide and free of obstacles. The Bikeway rolls about 3-4 miles to Grant Line Road. We stopped in the middle to take in the view and munch on goodies. Roger S. chowed down on his fried chicken. Lucky me, he offered to share a piece. Yum. There isn’t much more goodness than fried chicken when you’re hungry from cycling. The whine of cars on adjacent 580 was the only thing that destroyed the peacefulness.
At Grant Line we headed west and had to put up with traffic just until Altamont Pass Road about a mile away where all of the cars turn onto 580. The climb up Altamont is more gradual and nowhere is as steep as Patterson. Everybody spread out and was rolling at their own pace. The last run-up to Altamont, where you pass over 580, is the only really steep section, about 12% for a half-mile. Alan was waiting for us about midway. Why not the top? “It just looked like a good place to rest!” After we regrouped we took the rest of the climb at a more sociable speed. Once you pop the top the descent to Livermore is sweet: no traffic, only moderately steep so you don’t have to ride the brakes, decent sightlines. Back on the flats it was a pleasant victory stroll back to the library.
I think next time I’m going to do this route in reverse so I can grab that fried chicken later in ride for a real “smack” down!
I spent a little time on the mountain
I spent a little time on the hill
I saw things getting out of hand
I guess they always will.
-Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia