Is there anything really new under the sun? When it comes to cycling, the answer is mostly no; it’s just old ideas given a new spin, peddling what was in fashion so long ago that the new kids on the block think it’s innovation. Wow, fluoro yellow jackets! Um, that was ‘hot’ or ‘dayglo’ yellow in the 1980s. “Gravel bikes”! Yep, they were called road bikes in the 70s, just ridden on dirt trails. Okay, so electronic shifting is kind of a ‘new’ idea, right? Yet it’s the cycling version of automobile paddle shifting…which was invented in 1912. Darn.
Last month the Davids led another training series ride, this time up the Marshall Wall. Actually it was David Go. and Mark because the other David had a scheduling conflict and had to bail. For some reason the Marshall Wall has become an iconic ride in some cycling quarters of the Bay Area. I don’t recall the first time I rode it but I know it was in the early days of the club shortly after I had moved to San Francisco. I have a vague memory of a club ride climbing up the Marshall with Dennis Westler, who later became club president, and probably along with other vintage Spokers such as Bruce Matasci and Abel Galvan both of whom later died of AIDS. I definitely recall doing it on the tandem with Dr. Bob several times in the late 80s/early 90s before he decamped to LA. In any case it’s semi-regularly offered by the club; at sister club GPC that ride also seems to be a near-monthly fixture of their ride calendar. The so-called “Wall” is just a hill like many other hills in the Bay Area so it’s an exaggeration. Probably what makes it mentally daunting is that at the foot of the hill you can see all the way to the top as well as everyone who is ahead of you, sort of like a mini-Mt. Hamilton. For real walls see Mt. Umunhum on the Peninsula or Mix Road, which inobtrusively lies to the west of Pleasants Valley Road in Solano (talk about heaven and hell!)
We started at the Marinwood Community Center, which has become the de facto start for rides in southern Marin and to Point Reyes. Back in the day—for reasons I don’t entirely understand—we started at the carpool parking area just off the Lucas Valley exit. Marinwood is better: there’s a bathroom and plenty of parking as well although I’m not sure the locals like having scads of out-of-towners gobbling up their parking. Starting early meant layering up for at least for some of us; others were gambling on the day warming up quickly and forswore warmers or comfy, cozy jackets. Lucas Valley has recently been repaved and the shoulders and hairpin improved. But car traffic on this Saturday morning was starting to appear. Growth is a bitch.
You get a few measly miles of warm up before the gradient rockets upward to Big Rock. It was chilly so I was looking forward to the climb to come. Nancy and I were chatting at the back and then we quickly became quiet except for the gasping. The subsequent descent to Nicasio is flanked by redwoods and soon you’re drowning in soothing shade. That calm was pierced all too often by the SUVs and motorcycles screaming past us. The group took a gabby little bathroom break in Nicasio before heading to the Cheese Factory. A little bump rises up between Nicasio and Hicks Road and is what David Go. calls the ‘Alpe du Fromage’. There a friendly driver said hello by leaning on his horn as he passed us at 40+ mph. He clearly wanted to get close and personal by brushing us as he brisked up the road. What a nice guy!
At the Cheese Factory several of us decamped to the tea room to do our business while the rest eyed the many Rapha bros who swirled by on their disc brake, carbonalicious beauties. Was it their chic two-wheeled fashion statements or the shape of their limber thighs that caught our eyes? Question: when everyone is clad in muted Rapha colors and sporting either a Dogma or a Tarmac, how does one stand out? Answer: you don’t because you’ve apishly followed the same trends.
Past the Cheese Factory we left most of the automobile traffic behind and it suddenly got really peaceful on Marshall-Petaluma Road. Pastures were still green despite the dearth of rain. But like a 45-year old supermodel they had that ‘faded beauty’ look that have you thinking, “Ah, still eye-catching but past the pull date”. After rolling on mile after mile of picture-perfect road it suddenly kicked upward and there we were at the foot of the Marshall Wall.
So what is this Marshall Wall and is it really a wall? It’s actually only about a mile and a half long clmbing about 500 vertical feet, which equates to about a 6% average grade. No big deal, right? Except the gradient isn’t constant and by my reckoning there is a 11-12% section in the middle that has you downshifting until you run out of gears. It also is completely exposed with no cover allowing you to see everyone who is ahead of you as well as the distant ridgetop. Being at the very back I had no idea what the guys at the front were doing. But I could tell that everybody else was inchworming their way up the Wall. There wasn’t anyone blitzing up the hill. It was bloody silent. “In space no one can hear you scream.”
And as with the recent Mt. Veeder Road ride I realized that my memory is disappointingly rose-colored. I had never understood why it was called a ‘wall’ before. But on this day it truly felt like I was rockclimbing rather than cycling. How could this be? Wasn’t it just a couple of years ago that I was here? My husband concurred and said it really wasn’t that long ago we had ridden over it. Why did it seem so different than I recalled? Later that day I looked it up: we hadn’t ridden the Marshall Wall since 2015! Seven years older, seven years of fading strength. Like a 45-year old former supermodel. I think I’m past the pull date. As I age I get the lovely experience of riding the same old roads, but my memory and body are so decrepit that it’s like riding a brand ‘new’ road. And it’s always a harder one it seems.
The ascent is followed by a descent to sea level that is also about 6%. But for some reason it has always seemed steeper and faster. The narrowness of the road with its rollercoaster curves provides the illusion that it’s steep. Eons ago I was stoking a tandem on the Marin Century down this hill. The captain, Dr. Bob, who was and is absolutely fearless, had us going so fast I had to shut my eyes and tuck in, sure that we were either going to make it down in record time or die trying. Absolutely none of the other faux racers could hold our wheel as we fell like a rock from heaven. At the bottom Bob proudly announced that we had hit 59 MPH. In space no one can hear you scream.
Once we were on Highway One we all spread out. Nancy and I were again at the back chatting. Perhaps it was the miles but she inexplicably slowed down and I found myself alone. I slowed down to wait for her but she slowed down too and couldn’t or wouldn’t catch up. Not wanting to be in the wind alone, I then sped up to catch those up the road. The trick with riding this section of Highway One is that the road weaves in and out to follow the contours of the Tomales Bay inlets, each one of which is a short descent followed by a short climb as you leave the inlet. If you’re wise to this you can rocket the descents and use your momentum plus a little sprinting get up the following climb. I managed to catch one group on the descent and then use momentum and the draft to be sent flying up the hill. Of course, in order to do this you likely max out your heart rate. I was leapfrogging between the riders and making good time up the road. Well, I managed to do this twice and was within eyeshot of the front of our group when it all came to naught due to leg cramps from the effort. I ended up crawling into Point Reyes Station at a snail’s pace.
The lunch stop was Bovine Bakery, which has delicious pizza. The only change I noticed was that the Pandemic has forced it to do window service only. Otherwise everything seemed the same including the scads of cyclists and other daytrippers lounging in the adjacent yard making their way as quickly as possible to a food coma. More carbon, gravel bikes, and Rapha attire.
Post lunch we left for the ‘standard’ (= easiest) route back, ie. no Platform Bridge for us, just head back Point Reyes-Petaluma Road. It didn’t seem like we were rushing back. But the earlier efforts had left me fatigued so I dangled at the back. Of course the cramps came back so I had to slow down. Normally I would then take the opportunity to enjoy the scenery but it was hard with my hamstrings itching to do a fandango every couple of minutes. A slow but steady crawl up Lucas Valley and I was feeling better. On the fast descent back to Marinwood Roger and I took it easy although the repaving and reformed hairpin surely makes it easier to hit approach velocity. Finally what a lunch break couldn’t resolve a little time and wisdom did and I was able to quicken the pace and made it up to the rest of the group just as they pulled into Marinwood.
Probably in a few years I’ll return. I’ll be older, more decrepit—is that possible?—and I’ll have forgetten how difficult the day had been. And then it will seem like a brand new, wretched climb. Unless by then I’m on an e-bike in which case it will be absolutely fabulous.