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Ride report: Climb to (Half) Kaiser, 6/30/2012

Photo credit: John Walker/The Fresno Bee
While the Climb to Kaiser is best known as a grueling 155-mile ride, there are also somewhat mellower options for mere mortals like myself. I've done the 70-mile metric(-plus) version several times, and I did the century ride once before, way back in 2005. After my recent cycling successes, I decided to return to Fresno this weekend to tackle "most" of the century route, including the 7.6-mile, 2,600-foot climb up old Tollhouse Road. This would be the ride that takes me past 50,000 total miles of cycling since I began training on June 1, 2004.

Why "most" of the century? On this year's ride, the century route continued an additional 6 miles past the top of Tollhouse and into Shaver Lake for lunch ... along very busy, winding, and narrow Highway 168. Add to that an extra 1,000 feet of climbing, and I had decided long before arriving that I was going to skip that out-and-back and do a still-robust ride of only about 85 miles. (As I learned during the day, many of the other century riders chose likewise.)

The day did not start smoothly, however. I left my hotel at 4:50 a.m. and drove the 6 miles to the starting point in Clovis. After I got there, I realized that I had left my Camelbak in my room! I quickly drove back and retrieved it, but by then I had just missed the 5:30 a.m. mass start -- and the associated police escort that provided free passage through all the traffic signals in Clovis.

I quickly got moving on my own. The police escorts must have been efficient; although I rode out at 5:36, they were completely gone by the time I got to every signal except for the very last one at mile 7. A couple of miles into the ride, as I was making a turn, I noticed another cyclist coming into the route from the other direction. He had his event number on, and he said, "We're so late!" I followed him for a couple of miles and to the next turn.

Then I realized that he'd made a wrong turn, as did I, and he was already out of sight. Fortunately, the streets are laid out in an almost-perfect grid, and I knew the area well enough that I was able to get back on the official route within a couple of miles. But I was all by myself, at the beginning of the ride where in the past I've been able to get some wind benefit from being in the large group of riders.

I left the trappings of the city and got out into the countryside, and still nobody else. Finally, around mile 12, I passed a rider stopped at an intersection. Then a couple miles later, a small paceline finally passed me. But it was clear that the vast majority of riders were way ahead of me. At first, this disappointed me, but then I decided that this was a good thing because that meant that they wouldn't be passing me all day long -- the Kaiser riders are notoriously strong.

As I entered Watts Valley Road, I began to see more signs of event life: an occasional SAG vehicle or motorcycle support, a rider or two. I'd last been out here in October 2010 with a small group from DSSF, and it was my first time here with the new bicycle and with Strava running. And I started overtaking cyclists. One here, another there. And nobody was passing me? I'm not overly fast on climbs, but I was approaching the tail end of the mass-start group.

Rest Stop 1
The first big climb of the day began at mile 24 -- which, by coincidence, was exactly mile 50,000 for me. Wildcat Grade is 3.6 miles with an average grade of only 5.2%, but that's highly misleading: Parts are downhill, parts are gently rolling, and, yes, parts are 16%, especially toward the end. And all the way up to the top, nobody passed me! I wasn't exerting myself all that much because I knew there were big climbs still to come, but I seemed to "fly" (if you can call 6 mph flying) by other riders all the way up the hill. And as I pulled into Rest Stop 1 at the top of the hill, I easily had a couple dozen riders behind me. It's a ride, not a race, etc., but yes, that made me happy.

A long descent, another climb (where, yes, a few folks finally did overtake me), and another short climb later, and I was at Rest Stop 2 at the base of the Tollhouse climb. This is where, in past years, I would have taken the metric route directly back to Fresno, but not today. My spreadsheet says my last climb up Tollhouse was on Sept. 10, 2006, and I distinctly remember that it was quite painful, taking 82 minutes to go from the Tollhouse Market to the top. (This is why I keep such detailed records!)

To get right to the good part: My time on this ride was 68 minutes. And it wasn't painful at all, except for the last half-mile or so where the average grade is 12% and some parts hit 20%. Again, I didn't push hard at all, and I probably could have shaved another couple minutes off my time if I had tried harder. But I was passing cyclists all the way up, including the one couple who said, "You make it look so easy!" I even skipped the water stop a mile from the top because I didn't want an interruption in my elapsed time for the climb (see also "The Strava Effect").

At the top at mile 48, about 4,600 feet up, the official route took the forementioned right turn up Highway 168. I stopped and dismounted and pondered my options. I certainly felt good enough to continue up to Shaver Lake, but I had decided earlier that I would not do so ... and since I had told the ride organizers of my plan, I didn't want to show up at Shaver Lake and use the rest stop services. Also, I knew that I had nothing extra to prove to myself today. Instead, I dismounted and ran quickly across the four-lane highway and picked up the route again at mile 59.

The rest stop issue wasn't an issue at all, because just a quarter-mile farther along the route was the next rest stop at Pine Ridge. I thought I was back in ALC! It was a luau-themed rest stop, complete with a volunteer in grass skirt and coconut bra with a garden hose to cool down overheated riders. (The temperatures weren't that warm yet.) Even better, a massage therapist was there with his table ... and since I had arrived early, I got to be his first client of the day. A few quick minutes, and my lower back was no longer complaining about the Tollhouse climb, and I was ready for the ride back to Fresno.

Since I'd just climbed to 4,600 feet, most of the remainder would be downhill, with an occasional break or two for small hills, but nothing significant at all. And it went quickly! When I reached Pine Ridge, my pace for the day to that point had been only 11.6 mph. But at the end of the day, I was at 14.1 mph, so you do the math.

I took the descents in my usual cautious way, but the new bicycle seems to have allowed me to slightly increase my speed ... I averaged 23 mph on the 10-mile descent (with a couple of uphill interludes) into Auberry. A quick rest stop near Millerton Lake, and as the mercury approached 90 degrees, I hit the final stretch back to Fresno.

As I rounded the last turn, I started to shift, and it wouldn't shift all the way, but I was able to complete the final half-mile without incident. I learned after the ride that my rear shifter cable had just failed (and it's being replaced as I write this). Imagine what would have happened if I had done the extra 11 miles!

My total riding time was 6:05 for just under 86 miles, at about 14.1 mph. When I last did the Tollhouse route seven years ago, I completed 100 miles (which didn't include the Shaver Lake out-and-back anyway, because it wasn't part of the route that year) in 8:34, for a pace of 11.7 mph. This was an appropriately uplifting way to reach 50,000 miles (and to exceed 1,100 miles in a month for my first time ever).

I arrived at the check-in desk and turned around so the staff could record my rider number. Because I had arrived before the scheduled 2 p.m. free dinner, I simply went back to my vehicle and headed back to my motel. Things seemed a bit subdued and a bit "off," I didn't know any of the other riders, and I really wanted a hot shower anyway.

What I did not know until later in the day was that there had been a fatality on the ride in the morning. It happened on a winding, steep, high-speed, high-altitude part of the route that only the full Kaiser riders use and that I hadn't been on. This was a painful reminder to me that descents are one of the most dangerous aspects of our sport ... and that I really don't need to gain five or six seconds on Strava at the risk of injury or death. In fact, the 10-mile, 23-mph decsent into Auberry -- the one that pleased me so much -- is actually the slowest descent ever recorded by anybody in Strava (out of 139 riders) for that segment.

The only other disappointment of the day was how motorists behaved in the higher elevations. Even though I was staying to the right and providing plenty of room to pass, one yahoo with a truck-style air horn attached to his 4x4 felt the need to repeatedly sound it as he stayed behind me and finally passed me more than a little too closely. And just outside Auberry on a reasonably flat stretch of road, another yahoo in a pickup coming in the opposite direction on a wide, two-lane road with a center line felt the need to yell "Idiot!" at me for no apparent reason. I know that cycling has become very popular in the mountainous areas where we are usually just guests -- and I also know that some cyclists behave like idiots as well -- but that's no excuse to lash out at everyone. I lived in Fresno for four years, so I had more than my share of run-ins with the colorful local population ... and it's one of the reasons why I don't go back there more often. The cycling scenery and variety are unmatched anywhere else in California, but it's not worth getting hit or run off the road.

But I'm glad I did my own personal abbreviated half-Kaiser yesterday. I was able to return to a route I'd not done in a long time, and I was able to reaffirm that, yes, I actually have become a better cyclist.

View more of The Fresno Bee's photos of the event here.