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john-anthony asked:

I love the post you made on your climb. I'm trying to get back into getting more milage as well aside from commuting. What's the setup on your saddle back and air pump? I like that idea of bringing a shoe for descents also!

Hi, thanks.
That setup on the back is actually an old radio holster from Skin Grows Back.  It works as a saddle bag so I didn’t bother buying a traditional one. The shoe is a fun idea but I would take some electrical tape along to make sure it doesn’t move about and get dangerous… or take a road bike ;)

The Longest Climb in California

It’s not crazy if someone else is also doing it.  At least that is how I felt when Deg said he was also keen to attempt the longest climb in the state on a track bike.  We had only met two days before when we rode Griffith Park but we both got an idea that the other could climb, which would come in handy, considering the climb to Dawson Saddle is 52 km long.

I caught the train from the beach to downtown LA and we met up to grab a bus out to Covina.  We were getting as close to the San Gabriel mountains as possible without pedalling.  Climbing is fun for me but having to do an extra 100 kilometres through LA’s sprawl on top of a big climb would have sucked.

After what I called an early start we were rolling through the dull, square far outer suburbs towards the hills at the end of the avenue. We thought we were fairly close but avenue kept going and the hills became mountains which in turn became really big mountains.  Then the avenue ended with a sweeping right curve and we were swallowed up by a canyon.


It was 10 a.m. and we were already mentioning the heat as the only cyclists we would see for the day rolled past going the other way.  I’d studied the map the night before and knew the start of the climb was gradual before it kicked up for the last 35 kilometres but I hadn’t thought it would be this hot. We were both wearing all black, my black jersey having bigger pockets than any others I owned, which I needed for food and water.

Being on track bikes we didn’t have bottle cage mounts but Deg had a clamp on one and gave me one which I could tape on.  As you can see in the picture above, if you can’t fix it with tape and/or a shoelace it is broken.  I had a bottle in the tape-on cage and two more in my jersey pockets along with bananas, energy bars and other assorted chewy energy food. From what I had seen on maps the night before there would be one cafe at 20 km to go but I know that once I start I don’t like to stop so my pockets were bulging.

After a pee break each we wound or way past a second dam where the gradient picks up and our speed dropped below 20 km/h, where it would remain for most of the next few hours.  


The heat was now really hammering down on my back and it seemed to weigh me down, there were no trees or cover, just rock and shrub and slow corners.  The views were starting to improve and the other positive I focused on was how good the road surface was, not hard when coming from Mexico… still something to think about instead of how slow I seemed to be moving with such effort.
It was towards the end of this nasty stretch that Deg dropped off the back a bit.  For me there is no climbing together on track bikes, you can’t gear down, you have to go your own pace and just keep going or it starts to get shitty.

The temperature was getting slightly cooler the higher up we went or perhaps I was just getting in to that robotic zone where thoughts like that are pushed out of your mind and you don’t really focus on anything particular, your body is just repeating the motions it has been doing for the last hour.  Either way the going felt easier and the road was more interesting.  There were tight switchbacks and every one had a great view looking back over the mountains which now looked blue instead of the sand and rock tones they had when we were down in them.  It’s difficult to get any idea of how how much climbing you have done until you get a clear view back down from where you started, I guess seeing I was getting high up buoyed my mind somewhat as well.


The first time an option in the road presented itself I stopped.  The only chance to get food and water was 3.5 km up to the right, the Crystal Lake Cafe.  I checked my bottles and figured I had just enough drink to get me to the top of the climb but then I’d be empty.  I didn’t want to go up and then come back down to continue the climb, it would mess up my rhythm and possibly the Strava segment.  I ain’t climbing 50 km and ruining my segment for the luxury of a drink at the top.
I made and arrow out of sticks on the edge of the road to let Deg know I had gone straight on.  

Hardly a car had passed by but just after the cafe turn off the ‘road closed’ boom gates would ensure we’d be alone until we hit the highway for the last few miles.
I was feeling a lot better now than nearer the bottom.  The robot was functioning well and the scenery was getting better and better, the air was thinner and I felt at home on the climb. 
The road narrowed and the surface deteriorated but knowing you were up there alone put me in a good mood.  The sides of the mountain were steep now and made up of jagged stone that looked like a loud cough might bring it down.  I had been climbing for two hours and had to try and focus so as not to run in to any of the rocks lying on the road.  I tried not to think about one coming down on me, there is no phone signal up there.

I guess I should have known better than to get a little cocky and think that this wasn’t going to be that bad after all.  My lower back started to seize up.  The first thought was “this is what you get for slacking on your core exercises”, and I was right.  I stood up on the pedals to try help but mostly I just put a pained expression on my face for no one to see and kept going.  Now that I think about it, it was at around this point where I went past the previous biggest climb I had ever done.  I was in new territory with a new level of back pain. There is nothing to do but stop and stand up straight to rest your back or keep going and I hate stopping.  I thought of Pantani as I like to do when I’m climbing and thought how he probably went through the similar pain but kept going, and a lot faster than I was going.  I kept going.


Finally the second boom gate appeared and I had an excuse to dismount and straighten my back out.  I climbed around the gate and started on the final section towards the summit.  The little break gave me and my back new energy.  I stood up and was going 30 km/h, the end was near and I was going to hammer the last section, make up for the earlier pee breaks and still lay down a good time for The Longest Climb in California segment.
Only the end didn’t seem to come.  After ten minutes my pace had dropped and doubts replaced confidence.  To my left was the north side of the mountain range, completely flat and dry to the horizon but ahead there was still mountain.  I saw a piece of road through the pine trees way up ahead but told myself that that must be some other road and the one I was on would surely go round a bend soon and then start going down.  image

I found myself on that higher section of road soon enough.  I was checking my bike computer and I knew that it wasn’t any further than I had calculated it was just that time was going slower.  I’d eaten enough and although I probably didn’t have enough fluids with me I had spread what I had out perfectly.  I was tired.  I had been in the sun for too long without a break of shade.

Just as soon as the top section was breaking down all the good vibes the middle section had provided I rounded a bend and saw a shed with a sign on it, Dawson Saddle Elev. 7901 ft.  I felt like putting my hands up in a victory line celebration but at the same time is seemed that it would be an odd gesture to do all alone.  I leaned my bike against the shed and found a bed in amongst the needles under the pines.  As soon as I stopped it felt like my face was contracting, the salt was starting to dry.  I took off my shoes, socks, helmet, earphones, sunglasses and gloves and lay back.  That was when I noticed how quiet it was, nothing to hear except for an occasional plane in the high distance that under any less silent circumstances I would not have noticed.  Even nature seemed to be muted up here.

I’m not sure how long I was up there, I was half asleep when I heard a human howl.  It was either Deg or the start of a Deliverance moment, I waited and then saw Deg roll up.  He was less restrained than I was and threw a fist up as he reached the top, though I guess he had a crowd of one.
He lay down next to me and we discussed the ride, he hadn’t seen the stick arrow I had made but figured I had gone straight on and had done the same.  He had found water from streams on the way up, sometimes not having music in your ears has it’s advantages.  We were both really happy to have made it, neither of us had really known what to expect until we were doing it.


After a good lie down we took the obligatory photo with the sign at the top and started back.  If you were wondering what the sneaker tied to my downtube in the first photo was about, it was about the descent. Staying clipped in on a track bike on long downhills starts to really hurt and I prefer to climb than descend when you have to keep pedalling. The shoe was my brake, I switched it out on my right foot and strapped my cycling shoe to the top tube.  The carbon sole of the bike shoe gets burned through in no time when you put it on the back tyre to slow down. 

There is nothing much better I know of than listening to good stoner and psych music while flying down a mountain with spectacular views. Add having just completed a huge climb you were worried about making and I was in a pretty good place.  I stopped a lot more on the way down as I had promised myself when riding up, passing by countless photo opportunities, the old sneaker brake working rather well.


I really needed water now and we turned up to the cafe, my left leg burning on the climb as it was the only one clipped in.  The cafe couldn’t come soon enough but the sign on the front door really pissed me off.  Who is closed on Tuesdays?  These bastards were.  We skulked around the camping and cabins area and found a tap, it sure wasn’t a cold beer and a sandwich but at least I could pry my tongue from the roof of my mouth again.

We sat down moaning about the cafe’s operating days, drinking our water, when a small brown bear decided to come investigate what was going on in the otherwise deserted area.  It was a really cool moment while also being a little frightening, the little guy was only 15 metres away.  We took some bad photos of the bear and decided to keep on moving before it or its mother decided to get to know us more intimately. 

The tight hairpin section was a blast and after that the road straightened out a bit and there was no need for braking for a while.  I had my feet on the rear dropouts and was tucked low in the drops when my front wheel blew out. I think I hit a small stone, but I am not sure, the views do make descending really dangerous.  Yeah I am blaming the view not having no brakes.  All I can say is that I am glad it happened on a straight piece of road.  I managed to keep it upright and pull over just before a tight hairpin.  If it had happened 30 metres later it would have a been a different story.  


My phone battery was about to die and the last time that happened I lost my ride on Strava.  This was one day that I did not want to lose, over 2000 metres as your biggest climb, you can’t mess with that.
I got the bike back on the road and started to really hammer it, I needed to get signal before the battery went.  The lower part of the descent was one of the toughest parts of the day, my legs were tired but I wanted to keep pushing to town.  I fought the wind and flat sections of the road telling myself it was good training for a breakaway at the end of a race.
I switched back to two cycling shoes and put the sneaker in my jersey pocket now that I had room.  At some stage it wiggled out and luckily didn’t get tangled up in Deg’s rig.  He shouted to me that it had come out but I told him to forget about it, I doubt I could have stopped at this stage and in any case it was a throw away sneaker from my host here in LA.  
We made it back to the land of cars and people and phone signal, and I got my ride saved with four percent battery remaining.  That fallen shoe was a worthy sacrifice to the mountain and the Strava gods.

We stopped at the first restaurant, Mexican, and I flattened a half litre Coke and big burrito in no time.  We were still stoked on the ride but I felt a little bit bummed to be back amongst people although a shower was certainly something I was looking froward to.  Of course the bus ride home along the freeway had a loud aggressive drunk to complete the welcome back to reality parade of depressing sights.

I’m not sure when I’ll see Deg again.  I’ve only seen him twice but after a ride like that it doesn’t matter how long it’ll be, we’ll be comfortable around each other the next time we meet.  It’s not too often you ride up a 50 km climb and hang out with a bear together with someone.image

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