Monster Climbs III – San Diego

by Arlyn on June 10, 2009

The series of thunderstorms that passed through California last week, giving San Diego such strange May weather wreaked havoc on our Monster Climbs plans. Instead of radiant sunshine and azure skies in the Eastern Sierras, it looked like we’d be in for rain, snow, wind and 35f temps in the high-altitude passes. To save the trip, Voris (trip captain) re-organized everything to base out of Death Valley instead of Bishop. That’s where I chickened out and bailed.

Instead, I planned my own little 3-day Monster Climbs adventure here in San Diego. I missed being with the team, but was glad for the company of my Dirt Bros and enjoyed recovering at home instead of at a motel.

Day 1 – South Grade of Palomar

The South Grade of Palomar Mountain is often compared to Alpe d’Huez, a legendary climb in the Tour de France. Having climbed both on a bike a couple of times, I can confirm the similarity with the exception that the 21 corners of L’Alpe are almost flat, making the ramps steeper when you consider the average gradient. Palomar is almost perfectly the same gradient throughout.

Mark and I parked at the casino at the bottom and headed straight up. The idea was to use the 6,000 feet of climbing Palomar as a warm up for the weekend. I was hoping to pootle to the top, but Mark set a nasty pace right away. Knowing I could only hold that pace for a few more minutes, I went to the front to slow it down. I got lucky in that Mark decided to sit in rather than drop me right then and there. He’s nice that way.

Up and up we pedaled, each lost in our own iPod playlists. It was nice and quiet – I guess the Moto-GP guys don’t get Friday’s off. About halfway up, I was feeling ok and began to plan my attack. I thought Mark might have some weakness near the top so I resolved to attack as we passed the 5,000 foot sign, about a mile from the top.

Climbing Palomar

With 5,000 feet of climbing in 21 switchbacks, Palomar is very similar to Alpe d’Huez

Mark beat me to the punch, launching a voracious attack with several miles to go. I went with him and was able to keep his wheel. I prayed that he’d have to slow down soon and he did. Hoping that he was spent from the attack, I counter-attacked, but Mark kept my wheel. Still convinced he was on his last gas, I pushed hard one more time, but it turned out that I was the one on the edge and I imploded. Mark went right around me. I still got about 1:30 for the South Grade which is not a personal record, but not bad either.

Mark and the Observatory

Mark pedals the final meters to the Palomar Observatory

We moseyed up to the high point and did a lap to the Observatory before heading back down the grade to the car. All in all, we got 6,147 feet of climbing in just 38 miles over 3:06. Nice warm up.

Day 2 – Epic Mountain Bike Adventure

I love Saturday morning epic mountain bike adventures with Mark and Andy and last Saturday did not disappoint. As we headed out to Cuyamaca under blustery skies, my thoughts were with the Descenders. If we were getting weather this far south, I wondered what it must be like in Death Valley – hopefully no wind or rain.

My Dirt Brothers

The Dirt Bros at one of our (glorious) rest stops

Mark, Andy and I headed east on new trails, bound for Indian Creek and the famous Noble Canyon descent. We stopped along the way to chat with and get directions from other riders. I was very happy for the stops as Mark was continuing to push a hard pace – when does that kid slow down?

Beautiful Country

Gotta love Cuyamaca – the weather made it even more beautiful

Awesome singletrack trails led us to Deer Park fire road and the start of the Indian Creek trail that would lead us to the top of Noble Canyon. A narrow swath of rocky singletrack lead ominously uphill into the scrub. Up and up that trail went, like the rocky spine of some ancient dragon. Mark and Andy have much better skills than I and motored ahead while I was forced to stop and negotiate several obstacles on foot. This was by far, the most technical climbing I’ve ever done. Absolutely relentless as well – it took me 35 minutes to travel just 1.8 miles up that hill.

Andy Climbing the Dragon's Back

Don’t try this with 50psi, that’s for sure

Indian Creek gets you coming and going

Taking a picture of this switchback was the perfect excuse for a break

Finally at the top, we decided to bomb down Noble Canyon, a legendary singletrack descent with sections named “Stairway to Hell”, “Barney Rubble” and “The Widow Maker”. Yeah, right… Mark and Andy sped off with their “mad descending skills”, leaving me to pick my way down in quiet solitude. Honestly, 95% of Noble Canyon is super-fun twisty-turny singletrack running through oak and pine forest, opening to chaparral and scrub at the bottom. It’s the 5% that makes the trail treacherous and kept me on my toes. Go flying around a sharp corner to find a 6-foot rocky dropoff – oh, is that stump actually used as a ramp? Wow.

Near the bottom, I found Mark and Andy waiting at a creek crossing. Mark had an owie from one of the obstacles and you could tell that the fun had worn off. We continued down the canyon and took the early exit to start making our way back to Cuyamaca.

Aluminum Stallions

Mine is the orange one

Deer Park Road is paved until you get to the “Big Oak Tree” with sections as steep as 15-20% and is a nice way to warm up the legs after the Noble downhill (not!). We picked our way west back to Cuyamaca, the car and all that cold beer. I was feeling good and there was no good reason not to leave it all on the trail so I attacked right off the front. It felt really good to be hammering so I kept it up, all the way to the top of the ridge. I looked back and realized I was finally putting the hurt on Mark so I let out some kind of rebel yell, I was almost at the point of laughing – funny how after 5 hard hours on the bike you can feel so good. Mark caught me on the descent into Cuyamaca, which is expected. He’s ballsier than I am.

More Cuyamaca countryside

What a beautiful day

We re-grouped at the highway and took the singletrack back towards the car, passing several runners participating in the San Diego 100 Mile Endurance Run – seriously – 100 miles?!? They were at mile 46 or so and some looked fresh and others looked to be struggling. The winner finished in a little over 18 hours so everyone planned on running all night. Yeah, that’s just crazy…

The trail and the trees

The trails that connect Laguna and Cuyamaca are awesome

We continued toward the car, being careful to give the runners the right of way. Still feeling good, I waited patiently for another opportunity to hammer and got it when we turned off the runner’s course and onto the last 2-mile stretch of singletrack leading to the parking lot. I gave it everything I had, feeling really good again. Mostly flat with lots of twists, this section is one of my favorites. Splashed through the creek, gingerly negotiated the switchbacks and zoomed the final turns.

The best part

Mmm, Levitation Ale and a handmade BLT with turkey

Cold beer and an awesome lunch awaited (thanks Tami!). Does it get better? Day 2 totals: 35.5 miles and 5,945 feet climbed in 6:08.

Day 3 – Pie Run to Julian

I love riding to Julian and I always suffer on the way home. I couldn’t find anyone to join me, but was looking forward to the six hours of solitude on the bike.

I got ALL the town signs

I got ALL the town signs

After 10 solid hours of sleep and a leisurely morning, I set out to Pie Town. I kept the pace moderate, knowing it’s all about getting home and the last 2,000 feet of climbing. I was hoping that my new nutrition plan would keep me feeling good all day. If I am to survive Leadville, I’ll need to be able to ride for up to 12 hours and I’ve always had trouble around hour 5. Today would be a test.

Julian Grade

There’s something about this tree…

The miles drifted along and soon I was climbing out of the Ramona basin toward Santa Ysabel. I chatted with another rider for awhile who turned out to be Tony Ellsworth of Ellsworth Bikes. He’s a heck of a nice guy, I’m going to have to check out his MTB line. It’s cool to have a bike manufacturer in town.
I didn’t set any records to the top of Old Julian Highway, but that’s ok. I kept rolling on to Santa Ysabel and was still good on water so I decided not to stop and just roll up the grade to Julian. Left turn on Wynola Road for the bonus miles and to avoid some traffic. Wynola is one of my favorite roads – it’s so picturesque. Very nice to climb and descending is very exciting.

Julian Town Sign

Favorite town sign of the day

Rolled into downtown Julian a little after 3 hours, sent a text to the fam, turned around and headed for home. I don’t really take the time to eat the pie anymore, the break seizes my legs up and the pie is good, but not what I need to get home.

Every time I head to Julian I tell myself that I can get bonus miles by coming home via Highland Valley Road. But every time I get to the HVR turnoff on the way home, I’m feeling so horrid all I want to do is crawl into ditch for a nap. So, I never take the bonus miles. Last Sunday, I felt great and turned onto Highland Valley; one of San Diego’s best cycling roads. Twisty, steep and in the middle of almost nowhere, it’s majestic. Lucky to be climbing the shallow side, I enjoyed the exciting 40mph descent, even powering up several of the “attack ramps” – places where the road briefly turns uphill during the descent where you can gain time on others by hammering.

Wynola Road

Wynola Road is one of my all-time favorite roads

Finally deposited on Pomerado Road, I began the final 10-mile push home. I passed a tandem going uphill at about mile 85 and they passed me on the downhill. Weariness was finally working into my legs and I was happy to jump on their wheel for the draft. They turned off at the bottom of the final 350-foot climb up Pomerado Road. At mile 92, this hill causes me to re-think the decision to buy the house I did. The houses at the bottom of the hill are just as nice…

Still felt good going uphill so I pushed it and found some reasonable power. Very nice. Totals for day were 93 miles and 7,831 feet climbed in 6:38.

In The End…

I got some emails and photos from the Descenders saying how great their Death Valley trip turned out. Awesome, I’m really glad it worked out. And I’m really stoked to have gotten in 159 miles with 19,926 feet of climbing over almost 16 hours of saddle time.

Perfect training for Leadville.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Barcy Bacani August 14, 2009 at 6:14 am

Hi Arlyn,

I don’t know if you remember me. My girlfriend and I met you and Andrew out in the Cuyamacas and saw you guys 3 consecutive weekends. Nice pics. and blog you got going here. The pictures looks like it was taken at the time when we saw your group the 2nd time. Good luck on your training.


Arlyn August 14, 2009 at 6:19 am

Hey Barcy,
Sure I remember you guys. Thanks for the kind words. I’m sure well run into you guys again this fall.

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