The roughest climb around stands outside my front door, practically. You drop down to Main Street, ride a few hundred yards, and see a sign that says, “Alta Sierra 8.”
I’ve never ridden it because I can see that it is a wall, an 8-mile wall that goes to the base of another 2-mile wall that goes up to the Alta Sierra ski lifts. It bodes nothing good for anyone on a bicycle. Til now I’ve had the excuse of snow and etcetera not to climb it. Lots of etcetera.
But the ascent starts at a crossroad of sorts, and that’s the thing about crossroads, aptly summed up by Yogi Berra, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Our brains, in addition to acting as bodily administrators, telling which muscles to twitch and regulating the machinery, are, in their conscious state, purely problem solvers. Your brain exists to find alternatives so you can then make choices.
A million times a day, we’re all standing at the crossroads. “Butter or margarine?” “Maple syrup or Karo?” “Fight, flight, or roll over and catch another five or ten minutes?”
And even though our brains are supreme problem solvers, they are famously terrible deciders, cf. Hamlet. Our brains do the heavy lifting of determining or inventing alternatives, but it’s as if, once the alternatives have been placed on the workbench, the brain clocks out and don’t come back, leaving you to figure out which fork to take.
That’s usually the one with the piece of German chocolate cake on the tines.
The left-hander at the bottom of the climb was steep but my legs felt good. I’d climbed up to Sherman Pass two days earlier, another very attention-getting climb: 25 miles of constant uphill to the base, and 18 miles to the top, pegging out at 9,200 feet.
But whatever fitness I’d gotten out of that ride faded after about twenty minutes. The climb to Alta Sierra goes from 2,500 feet to 8,000 feet in eight miles. Before long I was slogging in my 36 up bitter, 13% grades. Among the many wonders of the southern Sierras is the absence of cars. Climbing Sherman Pass I had been overtaken by three motos and zero automobiles in three hours of climbing. Alta Sierra was the same, and on Sunday morning not a single car was on the road for the entirety of the climb.
Which lasted forever.
I got to the next crossroads, where Old State Road meets the highway. Should I flip it and enjoy what would have been the most amazing, screaming descent of my life, or take the fork that led to the dirt road?
I chose the unpaved route, figuring I’d get to do the downhill another day, and plus, it was way too early in the morning to go home. Old State Road descends for about three miles and then comes to, you guessed it, a fork. Straight leads to my front door. Right is Wagy Flat Road, another three miles of climbing along a rocky, sandy, rough forest service road.
I went right and felt good until I didn’t. I’d underestimated how shot my legs were after the climb to Alta Sierra. And I was hungry. And it had gotten cold in Alta Sierra. Fortunately I had lots of water in my backpack and two peanut butter bagel sandwiches, so I planned to go on to the top of the climb, descend to Sawmill Road, go left and go home.
At Sawmill I was bonking so I parked and ate a bagel, drank some water, and looked at the sun. It was around 9:00 AM. If I went left up Sawmill I had six miles of guaranteed misery to reach Rancheria Road. I’d never taken Sawmill past this intersection but knew that it essentially went right back up the way I’d come.
If I went left and down Sawmill to home, well … I’d be home.
Standing at the crossroads, the story of my life. Maybe yours, too. I took the right fork and another helping of misery.
The first mile or so was easy as it traversed Wagy Flat, but after that the road went up again and my legs were empty. Although the grades were hardly steep, I couldn’t pedal when they got over about ten percent, so I did what I’ve never done before: I walk-biked.
It’s easy to do. You simply take your ego, set it gently down, dismount, and then push until the road levels a bit. I did this on and off for about three miles. Once you’ve set your ego down, everything gets easier, and I enjoyed the walking. I could hear and see more, and after a hundred yards or so the road would flatten, I’d remount, and my legs seemed rested each time from the brief stroll. Egos are so heavy, and that’s been the best thing about the abrupt way in which I abjured group riding: Don’t have to carry around my stupidly heavy and utterly useless ego like I once did.
But still, getting off and walking? That’s not setting down your ego gently. It’s kicking it off the edge into the cactus-filled canyon.
The scenery changed to tall pines and then to redwoods. Eventually, you know what I got to?
This was the fork where I could go left and suffer like a dog, go right and suffer like, say, a cat, or do a u-turn and suffer not at all.
The right led back to the highway, a mere eight miles off. I went right.
For three miles it descended gently, then began climbing again. After two miles the temperature had dropped into the low 40’s and a huge fog bank rolled in along with another impending bonk. I ate my last bagel then put on my rain jacket and thick wool gloves. Mind that I was already wearing a wool hat and a wool sweater. I reminded myself that there’s never really a dependable summer once you get above 9,000 feet, no matter how sunny and warm it is at the bottom.
Moving again, it kept getting colder, but before long I reached the ski lifts and the 2-mile paved downhill to the highway. Pointed straight towards home on CA 155, with glassy asphalt, no traffic, and the reward of a howling downhill calling my name, I approached, again, the turnoff onto Old State Road.
I’d been thinking about this.
If I turned back onto Old State Road it would take me to my front door. If I stayed on the highway I’d have the best descent of my life followed by a 1.2-mile climb to the house. Old State Road would be rough and would bang the shit out of me; doing all this dirt on a ‘cross bike has been great for my bone density but also replicates a low-speed car collision.
The highway pulled me at high speed towards the fork in the road.
Per Yogi, I took it.
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