Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mt. Baldy: Where Cycling and Snowshoeing Met

In 2001 I became the Regional Brevet Administrator for Randonneurs USA (RUSA), organizing long-distance road cycling events which stressed self-sufficiency over routes of specific distances, namely 200km, 300km, 400km, and 600km. As my turf was Southern California, it was my intention to showcase the best that our region has to offer the long-distance cyclist. Since the Los Angeles area is a basin surrounded by a ring of mountains, and because long-distance cycling requires "getting out of town," the routes I created would necessarily escape metropolis by ascending into higher, quieter ground.

The 200km route I created includes one of the very best 50-mile mountain loops anywhere in the country: the Glendora - Glendora Mountain Road - Mt. Baldy - Upland - Glendora loop that I first did at age 14, the day after buying my first "real" bike. Later I used this same route as my primary training grounds for the Race Across America, Iditasport, and Ironman, among others. It's always been a sentimental favorite, too, and I still go ride that loop once or twice a year, even though my parents retired and moved from Glendora to Solvang back in 1996. It’s a pilgrimage for me and one that I looked forward to sharing with the cyclists of SoCal. (I still do.)

And as for all those other miles in the 200km, they would be a really neat tour of the foothill communities of the San Gabriel Valley: Pasadena, Altadena, San Marino, Arcadia, Monrovia, Azusa, and Glendora, among others. Sure, other than the Mt. Baldy loop, it' was "urban riding," but the route traveled through really nice areas, quiet roads, easy to rolling terrain, and not too many lights or stop signs.

In the weeks leading up to our February 17, 2001 200km brevet, all eyes were on the weather. It was raining pretty consistently, as well as snowing at the higher elevations through which we'd be traveling on our way up to Mt. Baldy. But our ride day dawned free of falling water and with semi-clear skies. It would be our lucky day (and an unusual adventure)!

Forty-two riders departed during the one hour window between 6 and 7 am; mass starts are a memory of my early days of cycling, it seems. Since I was busy helping my Ride Director, Scott Scheff, I rolled out with the stragglers. Our point of departure, and finish line, would be the newly rededicated Hansen Dam Recreation Area in Pacoima, in the San Fernando Valley. Just nearby was La Tuna Canyon, a wonderful, building-free and quiet country road that connects "the Valley" to the San Gabriel Valley. Eight miles later we spilled into that other Valley and wound our way through beautiful neighbourhoods and past the world-famous Rose Bowl. Then it was a beeline through the aforementioned Foothill communities, always keeping the majestic and white-dusted San Gabriel Mountains immediately to our left.

Eventually Mt. Baldy (AKA Mt. San Antonio, her legal name) drew us like a magnet, two-thirds of her 10,000-foot body clothed in a thick skirt of bright white snow.
The climbing began in earnest not long after the first controle (that's French for checkpoint, where the riders had to get their "brevet card" stamped to prove that they had passed by) in Azusa. From Glendora's 1000 foot elevation, we would climb up and down several times to over 4,500 feet before dropping into Mt. Baldy Village at 4,000 feet.

Our route was simple: climb infamous Glendora Mountain Road ("where I became a man," I like to say), then stay right at the fork and continue on Glendora Ridge Road to the Village.
A few miles out of the first controle I realized that I had forgotten both of my water bottles. But luck was with me: we had encountered a group ride of the SCOR Cycling Club and there were several Furnace Creek 508 veterans in the group. We were having a little reunion and one of them, Jerry Wildermuth, gave me a fresh bottle of water (in a 508 bottle, no less).

I had about ten riders ahead of me as I reached the halfway mark up the climb to Mt. Baldy, the fork in the road where we were to stay right. I arrived there alone and was shocked to find it gated closed, but no riders waiting there in a confused panic. I thought "if the road is closed, why aren’t they sitting here waiting and wondering?" There was no significant snow on the road, but clearly the road must have been snowed over ahead. But where were the front-runners? As I waited, more riders arrived behind me and stopped. Scott rolled in with the controle van. And soon enough, riders started arriving from the opposite direction, having gone around the gate and continued until they found the road impassable. Although the road report I'd been given had indicated a clear road, it was most assuredly snowed over, I was told. What to do?

I didn't think long. As the rest of our group continued arriving from behind, I instructed everyone to just U-turn and head back for home. Our "lollipop route" would now become a pure out-and-back. This intersection in the road would be controle number 2, instead of up in the Village. Scott signed off time cards while I told everyone "head for home, but when you hit the Rose Bowl, do laps until your bike computers read 117 miles, then finish the course and you'll have 200km behind you." I explained that all the Pasadena area cyclists use the Rose Bowl perimeter as their personal criterium course, so they'd have plenty of company.

Everybody headed back, like cows for the barn. Well, everybody but four of us.

In nineteen years of riding this route, I'd never been turned back, so I wanted to see this "impassable road" for myself. I grabbed my digital camera from the van, mounted my Bridgestone RB-1 road bike, and continued. Debbie, Carmela, and Barclay - riding his HPV - joined me.

Sure enough, about six miles from the Village we found the road covered with snow about a food deep. As a seven-time Iditasport veteran and feeling right at home on my favorite road in the world, it was a simple decision for me to continue. My three comrades put their blind trust in me and went for it, too.

We started walking. And walking. And pushing. And walking more. It was slow going. First our bike shoe-clad feet stayed atop the snow, then they broke through to our ankles, then to our shins, then eventually to our knees. What would have taken 40 minutes on the bike was taking hours. And hours.

But it was adventure! And gloriously beautiful!

Trudging forward, we followed the fresh tracks of rabbit, deer, coyote, mountain lion, and bear (and I'm not kidding about the bear tracks; they were huge!) This was obviously the best thoroughfare around, at least for the native wildlife. Meanwhile, not a human being or a human footprint was to be seen, except for our own.

Between us we rationed two Hammer Gels, two Clif bars, a Balance bar and half a bottle of Sustained Energy. Then we ate snow. It was the only water we could have and we were surrounded by, standing in, and staring at tons of it. One big mouthful was only good for one sip, though. We ate lots of snow.

Ultimately, we pushed our bikes through the snow for more than four hours to cover a mere six miles to get to the Village. But it was worth it, so very worth it.

Now, with soaked socks and frozen, stinging feet and toes, we still had 62 miles to go! Wolfing down the only food available in the Village (Doritos, Peanut M&Ms, and Powerade), it occurred to me that most of the other riders were already finished and headed for their homes! Soon we were racing down the down front side of "our mountain" at over 50 mph, chasing the sunset.

We were quickly running out of daylight and, of course, none of us had brought lights. Who needs lights for 200km of cycling in Sunny SoCal? Fortunately we found a Radio Shack along the way and I spent $80 on strobe lights and flashlights to illuminate ourselves and the now pitch-black road. These lights failed, though, and so we found yet another Radio Shack to replace the lights and get more batteries. Market stops stole more time. It had turned into "the longest day," but we didn’'t care anymore. We just wanted to say "we did it."

Needless to say, we were jubilant, and exhausted, when Scott greeted us at the finish! It had taken every minute of the possible allotted time (13 hours, 29 minutes), but we knew that it was an epic way to start the new year and that this is what ultracycling is all about. Thank goodness I took that digital camera; otherwise nobody would have believed us! (And now those longer brevets will seem like a piece of cake!)

Originally published by Chris Kostman in American Randonneur, Volume 4, Issue 2, May 2001.

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