Oh My Mines

Hell hath no fury like a downhill scorned

All through the day
Oh my Mines, oh my Mines, oh my Mines
All through the night
Oh my Mines, oh my Mines, oh my Mines

Now they’re frightened of riding it
Everyone’s riding it
Comin’ on strong all the time
—George Harrison

What can you say about a ride that starts off with bulls being castrated? Yeah, that was an ominous beginning.

Most of the club stalwarts were off riding the Wine Country Century. It was just six of us taking the annual hajj up Mines Road ostensibly in search of wildflowers. Or something. It’s just an excuse to ride up one of the strangest roads in the Bay Area. This year I was curious how the area was recovering after the 2020 SCU fire incinerated almost everything near the junction of Mines Road and Del Puerto Canyon Road. Last year we rode up and were greeted by gruesomely burnt trees, first here and there and eventually entire swaths of hillside populated by charred and denuded of vegetation. Now it was another year on and perhaps it was less horrific. I hoped.

Mines Road is a relict of another time. It doesn’t go ‘anywhere’ at least not today. It’s known as the back road to the summit of Mt. Hamilton but back in the 19th century it was a road to a magnesite mine now long abandoned. Being an isolated road it’s a favorite for cyclists in the Livermore area as well as motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts who pretend they are on a closed course racing both up and down.

The start of the club’s Mines Road ride is at the intersection of Mines Road and Del Valle Road. There is a parking area making it a convenient start. My guess is that it became the start not just for convenience but probably also to shorten the distance. If you start at the Livermore library, which is about six miles back in Livermore, not only do you get a public restroom but a nice flat warmup before the start of the incline. But that turns a fifty-mile day into a sixty-miler.

At the start cows unseen on the other side of the road were braying incessantly. Roger S. remarked that it sounded like the bulls were being castrated. Hmm, Rocky Mountain oysters for dinner, dear? I preferred to think they were cheering us on. They were making quite a racket but it sounded more raucous than shrieking to me. Do bulls shriek? And how does Roger know what castrating bulls sound like?

Leaving the bulls to their business we took off and about a half-mile later the climb began ramping up quickly enough that we were rewarded with grand views of the Arroyo Mocho valley. There isn’t anything out here except ranches and a few Silicon Valley homesteads. But luckily it isn’t developed likely because it’s outside the city limits and one has to be self-sufficient for water and septic. Oh, and there is no cell service either. At this time of the year the green is almost gone and replaced by the dusky tan of dried grass. But green is supplied by the oak woodland and scrub brush feathering the hillsides.

Although I’d like to say we leapt up the hill, an accurate description would be more like ‘slogged’. David G. was overgeared for the climb and not warmed up, so he soon dismounted and click-clacked his way up to where the gradient subsided a bit. We all looked at each other and thought, “Fuck it, let’s take it easy today!” So to tackle the lengthy climb we took lots of breaks to inhale the views, the quiet, and gab slanderously about club members not present. Stephen had brought his e-bike and it certainly helped to flatten the climb.

Along the way we were passed by several groups of motos, one of whom decided I was a slalom pole as he brushed past me at 40 mph. We were also passed by a pod of Porsches who took care not to kill us. Then there was the myriad of tiny 50cc two-stroke motorcycles also heading up at a considerably less hectic pace.

Mines Road is strange because it is unlike any other ‘climb’ in the Bay Area in that it can be psychologically frustrating. The climb ‘up’ Mines Road is actually two climbs and two descents before you arrive at the junction with Del Puerto Canyon Road, the usual end point. Although you can continue into San Antonio Valley where the wildflowers bloom in greater numbers, most club rides end at the junction because of the Junction Cafe & Bar. After the first big bump up the hill things settle down for quite a while—you are going uphill but the gradient is so gentle that you think you’re riding on the flats. On this day we were pushed uphill by a vigorous yet worrisome tailwind. Worrisome? Because I knew what it meant for when we turned around. As you climb the Arroyo Mocho the valley narrows and ranches disappear to be replaced by odd dirt driveways and junky homesteads here and there. David G. and I both thought of the same thing: thank god we don’t hear banjo music! (That reference is for the elders out there. Hint: Deliverance.)

Higher up we were riding next to Arroyo Mocho and it was still running. It’s here that the wildflowers started to appear by the roadside—poppies, lupins, Indian paintbrush. That we’ve had a dry year was obvious by the diminished number of flowers. But we’ll take it! Soon the burnt landscape hove into view—charred, barren trees. But the land looked less ‘scraped’ than last year because the brush had popped up providing some green. Nature heals everything eventually. In a few years it’ll appear less damaged even if still a bit barren.

By taking it at a slower pace Mines can be a wonderful ride. Springtime up Mines is the best time to go not just for the greenery but also the isolation so close to the Bay Area. Of course having a tailwind made it extra pedalicious.

We got to the Junction Cafe and it was crowded with bikes—motorbikes. A Ducati club of about twenty or so riders was out for a run and had stopped. Around the other side of the cafe was the gang of 50cc riders. Despite the large number outside, the cafe was strangely empty. In fact hardly anyone other than our group was buying food despite it being lunch time. The Junction is a regular stopping place for the moto crowd. Back in the day it was more rundown and a real dive. The new owners have brightened up the place but the menu is limited to burgers. It seems the moto folk were into chatting rather than noshing. This was definitely not the Harley crowd. No beers, no glasspack mufflers, no cut-off jean jackets. Definitely a more genteel pack of motorcyclists.

While we were outside snacking a couple of cyclists—there weren’t any others—arrived and sat down with us. Both were heading up San Antonio Valley Road to the top. Yikes! There is a hellacious 14% section waiting for them. Better they than I!

After lots of idle, frivilous conversation we got off our duffs and headed out. Before the final ‘descent’ there are two uphill sections after lunch at the Junction. We’d spent such a long time there that we were in no danger of a scarf ’n bart fest. In any case we were taking it easy. The slog back to the top wasn’t too bad. Despite the lack of tree cover it was pleasantly cool and sunny. But we could feel the headwind…

At the top we started the descent but it sure didn’t feel like it. The headwind was about 15-20 MPH and the wind noise was so deafening that I couldn’t understand Roger at all over the radio. As usual the only way we were going to make it to the bottom was to pedal our asses off. There were short sections where the gradient increased and we could actually coast. But they were all too short. It’s demoralizing to climb all that elevation and then get a downhill like this. It’s like having two climbs and no descent at all. Only when you get to about the last three miles does the gradient get steep enough that you have a bona fide downhill.

Back at the cars everybody looked whipped. Stephen commented that midway down he was just DONE and he upped the boost from his battery to get to the end. What a strange inversion that you have to use your battery to make it downhill.

And what a way to end this ride: David Go. went off for a natural break and promptly slipped down the gully and threw out his back making for an excruciating drive back home.

And those damn bulls were still braying like their balls were being cut off. Speaking of getting your balls cut off, have you tried riding down Mines Road?