After a several weeks of monotonously dreary weather we got a break this past weekend and were greeted by bright sunshine and daytime temperatures north of 68F, finally. Our May Gray had morphed into June Gloom only to vanish and be replaced by real spring weather. Here in the East Bay clouds and fog are a rarity but not this spring.
Unbeknownst to most of you Orinda is host to a myriad of short and steep inclines that make riding here challenging and never boring, and today we were doing the “best hits”: west Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Pig Farm, Reliez Valley, Happy Valley, and east Papa Bear all crammed into a mere 35-mile loop. I had forgotten one climb that is part of this route, shorter than the rest but no less steep: Deer Hill, a depressingly wide open ramp that unfortunately bears too close a resemblance to Hicks Road and Oakville Grade. It’s 14%. But it’s short! So let’s call it six and a half climbs.
Only Jeff P and Roger S joined Roger and me. I hadn’t seen Jeff in ages. Had he been riding? It turns out he had come to the East Bay and rode Morgan Territory last week—that’s a lot more climbing than I’ve been doing recently! Roger S had been getting ready for the Chico Wildflower, training deliberately. With that under his belt at the end of April he promptly ditched the bike and hadn’t set eye on it for over two weeks. Regardless he had more than enough leg power despite his absence from pedaling. Roger and I had recently completed a really enjoyable but unexpectedly challenging bike tour in Japan. Of course returning home after a two-week absence meant cycling had to take a back seat to everything else going on in our lives that had been on hold including our garden that was showing signs of neglect.
All these roads are yawn all-too-familiar to Roger and me since they are our regular hunting grounds. But Jeff was only slightly familiar with them and thus several were brand new experiences for him. Roger S had been on them all but it had been a while so some of them were hazy in recollection.
Leaving downtown Orinda the first incline was a few short miles ahead: Papa Bear. Typically we ride this in the other direction, from east to west and it comes at the tail end of the Three Bears loop. There are a couple of good reasons for not riding it in this direction: it’s a taller climb heading east because you start it at a lower elevation and it also happens to be quite a bit steeper, like about 10% in places. Despite being just the first climb (or perhaps because it was just the first of six hard climbs) we stayed together up the hill lamenting its difficulty. However on the other side Roger S blasted the descent and kept the momentum all the way over Mama Bear to the Alhambra Valley Road turn.
Conversely doing Mama Bear in this direction seems easier at least to me. The usual ride up Mama Bear is a long, steady slog up a 9% grade with the summit at the distant horizon, an always depressing sight. The way we rode it Mama Bear is broken up by two short climbs and descents, one of which may be the mysterious Baby Bear that no one seems to know the location of.
Turning onto Alhambra Valley Road it was starting to warm up and the cooling wind gone. The climb up Pig Farm—now called just Alhambra Valley—is another “save the best for last” climb with a ridiculous gradient just below the summit. Everybody used to call this hill Pig Farm because back in the day an infamously noxious pig farm was at the top whose stench was your summit reward. That sty is long gone—I can’t recall exactly when it closed—and replaced by a gentleman’s ranch. Another piece of vanished Bay Area cycling lore.
Roger S took off again on the descent and nearly got beaned by a car suddenly turning out into the road. Despite roaring at over 40 mph he managed to zip by and pass it without a scratch. The rest of us valuing our wellbeing and skin took it more slowly. Alhambra Valley Road has a Jekyl-Hyde personality: at times it’s a quiet and peaceful backcountry road and at other times it’s a cut-through race course for drivers looking escape the mess on Highways 680 and 24. For cyclists that means keeping an eye out for the impatient drivers and today seemed to be the day. When it’s quiet it’s a remarkable ride but today it was a typical road full of fast cars passing on narrow straits.
We turned off into Briones Regional Park to get some water and have a midride snack. The parking lot was full of mountain bikers, some just heading out and a bunch just back from their ride. A couple of bikers were enjoying post-ride cigarettes chatting away, reminding me of another Different Spokes ride in the distant past out of Orinda BART. Luis, Michael R, and former president-for-life Dennis pulled into the BART lot at the end of a hard club ride and went to their respective cars. All whipped out their smokes and lit up. I’ll always remember Luis for smiling while saying, “A cigarette after a hard ride is the best!”
After our break it was back to Alhambra Valley, which turns into Reliez Valley and slowly gets steeper and steeper. Roger S didn’t remember there was a climb up Reliez and was rudely surprised by the grade. By now I wouldn’t say we were baking but it was definitely the warmest weather we’d seen over here in several weeks and we were all sweating from the heat and the effort.
After a short descent we were back in civilization and just a brief reprieve before Deer Hill. This road is another commuter cut-through because it parallels 24, which is always jammed during the rush hour. Today it wasn’t bad traffic-wise but it’s an ungodly 14% and it looks it: a straight-up-the-hill climb. What followed after a brief sprint past the Lafayette BART station was Happy Valley Road, which really should be called Unhappy Valley because it too starts out slow and then gets steeper as you climb. The top is around 12-13%. By now we were all rather tired despite it being less than 30 miles. Near the top I stopped to catch a breath in the shade and Roger S joined me. We chatted away in order to delay continuing the climb. But eventually we did. The descent on the other side is hellish. It’s actually the better way to climb Happy Valley because the road is wretchedly potholed and uneven and that is less an issue when you’re going 5 mph. But descending it’s difficult to discern the incongruities when you can’t see in the shade and we were bounced left and right like pinballs.
What was left was Papa Bear the usual way. There’s nothing that needs to be said about it since you’ve probably done it yourself many times. Over the years Papa Bear has changed subtlely. The road quality is actually better these days than when I rode in the ’80s. Being county road it never gets much love but the pavement quality is pretty damn smooth for chipseal. And there aren’t any potholes! Which is good since you’ve got one of the fastest descents around. I used to hit 45 mph there when I was young and deluded. Roger S probably hit that this time but not I. I’ve never crashed on Papa Bear and want to continue that unblemished record!
At the bottom is a very short, steep, and annoying climb back to San Pablo Dam Road—is this Baby Bear? After grunting to the top we headed back to Orinda and got lunch at Petra Cafe. I was famished and ready for a recharge. For such a short ride—just 35 miles—it packed in 3,700 feet of climbing and much of it in double digits. Type 2 fun!