Saturday, October 13, 2007

Low-Key Hillclimb: Bohlman - On Orbit

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This week's ride was amazing. The route was Bohlman - On Orbit. A quick explanation of the name: Bohlman is a 4 mile dead-end road, and On Orbit is another road that branches off Bohlman then rejoins it further. The reason for taking On Orbit instead of staying on Bohlman the whole way is because On Orbit is steeper.

This is considered to be one of the hardest (if not THE hardest) steep bike rides in the Bay Area. I did this route only once, about 6 months ago. And I did it without the On Orbit option. At that time I needed to stop two or three times to catch my breath.

The crowd was smaller as some people skipped this route because it is horribly steep. Knowing that primarily the strong cyclists would be there, and the distinct likelihood that I would need to take some breaks, there was a strong possibility that I would finish last this week.

Another complication was that I knew there would be several slick wet spots on the road. It rained much of the day yesterday. Although today was bright and sunny, the hill soaks up the rainfall like a sponge and it oozes out water for a few days.

photo by Clark Foy

Because the number of people was smaller, we did a single mass start. Naturally I kept to the back of the pack so that many people would not have to pass me. The road is steep from the beginning. Because of this, the group dispersed into several smaller groups keeping similar speeds (different levels of slow).

I was initially in a group with two other cyclists, both women. I could have gone a little faster than the speed I kept, but I intentionally wanted to preserve strength. Even though this part was steeper than most other roads, the worst part was yet to come.

Having been on most of the route before, I knew when to expect the turns and the short, steep sections. At these points, I made sure to pedal steadily and evenly. These places were usually wet, so sudden strong pedal strokes could cause the wheel to slip. Overall, the road wetness was not causing a problem for me or others.

Just before On Orbit branched off, our subgroup had dwindled to two people as one person fell back. But as we climbed On Orbit, we merged with two others who had been ahead of us.

On Orbit was amazingly steep. It has stretches that sustain a grade over 20%. When it is this steep, it is not possible to ride in a normal biking position -- the front wheel would lift off the ground and you would risk falling over backwards. To prevent this, I needed to lean as far forward as I could. My chin was about one foot from the handlebars. I also slid as far forward on the seat as I could.

It takes a tremendous amount of strength to pedal up a grade this steep, and it did not help that we needed to use so much energy just to get to this part of the route. To mitigate the steepness, all four of us in the subgroup began taking a serpentine route up the road. By zigzagging from the left side of the road to the right, we covered a little more distance, but reduced the effective grade that we were climbing.

We were all traveling about 3.5 miles per hour at this point. This is the slowest speed one can pedal on a bicycle and still keep it upright and stable. It felt like it took a long time. I almost felt like I would run out of energy before I reached the crest of the steep section. I was panting heavily and was becoming dizzy. But I kept pushing and we reached the top. There was a short, steep descent as On Orbit rejoined Bohlman where I could just coast and catch my breath and rebuild some energy.

The road then became a steep uphill that normally would have felt challenging, but which after On Orbit did not feel difficult at all. At this point our four-person subgroup started to spread out, and I was in front. After that section, the difficult climbing was done. The next one third mile was fairly flat. I had recovered enough energy at this point that I felt I could pedal hard and ride fast. I passed a couple more cyclists here.

photo by Clark Foy

The rest of the road had some short, steep sections, but nothing too difficult because they were not sustained grades. I kept pedaling hard to the finish. I was fully exhausted, but I was thrilled when I realized that I did the entire route without needing to stop. Clearly I am a stronger cyclist than I was when I tried the road for the first time earlier this year.

I chatted with a couple of people at the finish. I recognized Toby, the guy I chatted with while we were riding on Montebello Road in week one. Somehow I was not as hungry as I usually am after the race, so I only ate a handful of peanut butter filled pretzels.

I was very careful on the ride back down the road. The slick wet spots are more dangerous on the descents. But no one seemed to have any problems with the road conditions.

After reaching the bottom, I called Vaishali. We had planned to meet and do some cycling together. I had to bike uphill again to reach our designated meeting point. During the steepest part of this route, I was suddenly hit by an overwhelming hunger. But I had enough energy to get to the place where Vaishali was waiting. I ate an energy bar (I always keep one with my bicycle just for situations like this) and recovered. We finished our ride, including Vaishali's first attempt to ride up a small hill.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This comment for testing purposes. Am selecting "anonymous" identity.
- Vaishali