Monday, 8 October 2012

7 Oct: A ride in the Santa Cruz mountains

Nigel writes: A work trip to "Silicon Valley" in California meant I was unable to join the club's usual Sunday rides, but with the region experiencing unusually hot and sunny weather I knew I just had to go for a bike ride.

For my ride today I rented a lightweight road bike from The Bike Connection, an excellent bike shop in Palo Alto, very close to Stanford University. A day's rental was $37.93 (about £24), and given the quality of the bike I received I think that was good value, and I'd happily recommend it.

The area known as Silicon Valley is a dull, flat, sprawl of suburbia about 30-40 miles south of San Francisco. On the western side, however, the Santa Cruz mountains offer some very quiet and peaceful roads for short but very strenuous bike rides. On a Sunday afternoon I was far from the only cyclist on these roads today: I passed hundreds of riders in the course of the afternoon.

After picking up the bike (and, rather incongruously, showing my driving licence) I started my ride with a gentle tour of the campus of Stanford University. This seemed a pretty cycle-friendly place, and there were plenty of "ordinary" cyclists riding around the campus. The architectural focus of the campus is the Hoover Tower (below), where a passing student obligingly took my photo.

After crossing the campus I turned onto Sand Hill Road towards the mountains and was soon in open country. The popularity of this road for sporting cyclists meant that there were cycle lanes all the way. This first few miles was fairly level, but the view ahead showed that I wouldn't be on the flat for long.

After about half an hour I reached the turn for Old La Honda Road, and the start of a long climb. According to my research on the web, this road has an iconic status as a classic hill climb, and the local cycling club even categorise its riders on the basis of how long it takes to climb it. So I was very much looking forward to trying it out.

The climb is about 3.5 miles long and gains about 1290 feet. It passes through redwood forest and is almost completely shaded, a relief on a day where the temperature in the sun was over 25C. I paused before the climb to mentally prepare myself.

The climb itself was delightful. My bike was clearly geared for a climb such as this, and it was simply a case of settling into bottom gear and winching my way up. The road surface was exceptionally smooth, and the road itself almost completely traffic free apart from a few local residents and a succession of cyclists coming the other way. It was never so steep that I had to struggle, and at this point in the ride I was warmed up but not yet tired. Perfect. The climb took took 40 minutes (which places me in the middle of the Western Wheelers Bicycle Club's rider gradings).

At the top I turned onto a bigger two-lane road, Skyline Boulevard (route 35), which runs along the ridge of the Santa Cruz mountains. It wasn't very busy and a very wide shoulder acted as a adequate cycle lane. A couple of miles north took me to Sky Londa, a road junction with a few stores and cafes, a few cyclists and a large number of motor cyclists. The elevation here was 463m. I stopped briefly to buy a drink before continuing.

From here I dropped down on the western side of the ridge, losing height at an alarming rate as I knew I would have to regain it later. This was route 84, which continues all the way to the Ocean about ten miles away. A passing rider stopped to chat and advised me on a route. He was heading for the Pacific, but that would be too far for me so after a few miles, at a tiny settlement called La Honda, I turned back east onto a road he had recommended called Alpine Road.

Alpine Road. The name is appropriate, since this was a very long climb back up to the top of the ridge, ending up at about 600m. This was a long and tough climb - much harder than the earlier ride up Old La Honda Road. Not particularly steep, but relentless. The views, however, were lovely, and the trees sheltered me from sunburn almost all the way.

This road was higher than the earlier climb, and short sections were in the open sun, but fortunately not for long.

Eventually I reached the top of the ridge and the junction with Route 35.

I crossed over onto Page Mill Road and - at last! - a long, winding, six-mile descent back to sea level.

This was a fast and exhilarating descent, mostly in the trees, but occasionally offering glimpses of Palo Alto and the adjacent urban areas below.

Once at the bottom a few final miles brought me back to Palo Alto and the bike shop. I arrived back at 5.30pm, having cycled just over 40 miles over about four hours. Not a bad distance for an afternoon ride, and very satisfying for such a hilly one.

View this GPS track on a larger map

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