Sunday, November 4, 2007

Low-Key Hillclimb: Welch Creek

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This week's climb was a qualified success. I skipped the ride last week because of a conflict. Due to a combination of a busy schedule and reduced evening daylight at this time of year, I have not been able to do any training rides in the two weeks since the Mt. Diablo ride.

Welch Creek is a difficult road to cycle. There is a debate among cyclists as to which road is the most difficult in the Bay Area — either Welch Creek or Bohlman - On Orbit (the week 3 ride). I rode Welch Creek once before, about 3 months ago. At that time, I reached the top but needed to stop about 4 times to catch my breath. There was an extra challenge back then because I did it in the summer heat.

We did the registration in the small town of Sunol, then rode the 5 miles to the start of Welch Creek Road. It is a small, dead-end road, so there is not much traffic. This is good because it is barely wider than one lane in many places. We were able to do a mass start. It was a smaller group than usual, as several people opted to skip this difficult road (just like with Bohlman - On Orbit).

photo by Kwan Low

The road begins climbing immediately with a steep grade at the very beginning. However, the overall grade is inconsistent. There are short stretches that are level or even slightly downhill. And then there are sections that are brutally steep.

I made sure to start at the back of the pack. Most of the people who started behind me passed me early on. I knew on the first incline that I was not in my best condition. I felt significantly weaker than I normally would. I made sure to keep a slow, sustainable pace. I did not care if I finished last. I wanted to simply make it to the top without having to stop.

However, I was forced to stop because of a car coming downhill. I had little space to get by it as it came slowly around a bend, so I dismounted and walked past it. I started pedaling again as soon as I was by it.

Further up the road, there was an extended steep section. It took all my energy to get to the top of that part. I was completely drained. I was panting and became dizzy and then nauseous. If there was anything in my stomach, it would have come out. But I had eaten breakfast two hours ago. I had to unbutton the chinstrap of my helmet because the slight pressure on my throat was increasing the nausea. I ended up stopping and catching my breath for about two minutes. It was disappointing, but not unexpected considering my level of conditioning.

A short while later, I was again forced to dismount. As I rounded a curve, there was a cow in the middle of the road. She was crossing the road from left to right, and eventually walked off the road on the right side. Just as I was about to start again, a calf approached the road and stopped at the edge. It saw me and became too nervous to cross.

This was not a good situation for me. As long as the calf was still standing there, the only way for me to pass was to go between the calf and the cow. This is not a good idea. Cows can become aggressive if they feel their calf is threatened.

There was only one rider, Anne, behind me and she caught up as I was standing in the road assessing the situation. I told her about the cow and calf. Anne decided she would try to ride through. I figured I would see how well that worked so that I could do the same. But as she approached the calf, the cow stopped grazing and started walking towards Anne, and not in a casual manner. I warned Anne that the cow was coming towards her so she turned around and came back to where I was standing.

It seemed like we would be stuck here as long as the cow was on one side of the road and the calf on the other. And by this time a second calf joined the first one on the side of the road. We tried to coax the calves across the road, but as we approached, they simply moved away from us, remaining on the same edge of the road.

Anne tried two more times to ride through, only to have the agitated cow come at her again. If only a car would come by and clear out the cattle, but no such luck. This was the only time I was hoping to see a car on a mountain road.

As we stood and discussed our options, another rider came by. She had gotten a flat tire at the very start, and I did not know if she was going to abandon the ride or not. Clearly she fixed her tube and continued. We told her about the cow situation in front of us, but she said it should be no big deal and continued without stopping. As she rode by the calf, the cow only mooed at her, and she simply told it to shut up as she continued riding.

How frustrating this was for Anne and me. We guessed that perhaps the cattle were undisturbed because she never stopped and simply pedaled through without appearing to be a threat. We decided that this was our only chance so we rode back down the road and turned around.

We pedaled slowly and tried to appear nonthreatening. As we approached within 15 feet of the calves, I could hear the leaves rustling as the cow started walking towards us. I did not look at it because I was focussed on the road ahead. As we got within 5 feet of the calves, they became nervous and darted. At this point I could tell from the rustling noises that the cow was no longer walking but was running. This is NOT a comforting sound. Fortunately at this spot, the cow could not get back on the road because of a drop off.

Anne and I were pedaling as fast as we could, and soon we were out of danger. Anne remarked that the long break brought her heart rate back to normal, but the burst to get away from the cow brought it right back up.

The two of us kept a similar pace from that point. As we approached the last half mile before the finish, we started seeing the other riders returning to the bottom. As they whizzed by us, I warned them about the cattle in the road. I had to make one more brief stop before the finish. I crossed the finish line just ahead of Anne.

photo by Pat Parseghian

I was totally exhausted and dizzy. I found a large rock and leaned against it for a couple minutes. I needed to just rest and catch my breath. I usually like to eat some snacks at the finish, but I was still nauseous and could not eat. There were just a few riders remaining at the top. Most had left by this time. I remained there just a few minutes and then started the descent.

The only challenge of going downhill was the strain on my hands from continuous braking. I was descending in a group of four cyclists. About one mile down, I heard a loud POP. Unnerved and afraid that one of my inner tubes may have burst, I gently came to a stop. But I felt both tires and saw that they were both still inflated. I looked ahead and saw one of the other cyclists pick up his bicycle and carry it to the side of the road. I coasted to where he was and saw that it was not his tube, but his rear wheel. It had cracked. It was now too warped to spin through the brakes. He was lucky that he did not lose control and crash.

The rest of the ride down the hill was uneventful. I decided to ride along Calaveras road away from where I was parked so that I could have a longer ride, since Welch Creek is only four miles long, one-way. Calaveras Road is nice to bicycle on, with some small inclines and declines but nothing steep. I rode to the end and returned, although it required more energy than such a casual ride normally would. I returned home and was too tired to do much else that day.

I will be skipping the following week's ride since I will be in Chicago for Raja's wedding. Anyhow I would not have done it because it is a mountain bike ride up a dirt road, and I do not have a mountain bike. My next ride is in two weeks. Today I learned that I will NEED to do some training rides in that period to maintain my level of conditioning.

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