So we went down to the Bay Area last week to “visit my mother-in-law.” That was the excuse, but I had a secret agenda. I wanted to beat the Devil. Aka, Mt. Diablo, the sloping, 4,000 ft behemoth that looms over the East Bay. There’s a winding road that goes all the way up to the summit, and when we lived there in the early ’90s, I would sometimes ride up a few of those 4,000 feet. But I never could make it above the foothills that surround it. Lapping at the toes of the beast, as it were.
In terms of elevation gain, it’s not a simple goal. It’s more climbing in 10 miles than the entire, 200-mile Seattle-to-Portland ride. Plus I had a big disadvantage: I didn’t bring a bike.
Silly me, I thought I could just rent one. Turns out nobody rents road bikes in the East Bay. Enter Rivendell Bicycle Works, which happens to assemble their beautiful, lugged steel bikes in Walnut Creek, very close to Grandma. I’ve been stalking their website for a while, because they have great bikes, accessories, and lots of interesting bike info.
They don’t rent bikes either. But I told them about my quixotic, unfulfilled quest to ride up the Devil, and they said, well just take a bike. And bring it back before the shop closes. No charge. And just like that, they set me up on a gorgeous A. Homer Hilsen road bike, and there I was, on my way up the mountain.
Now, Rivendell is one of those bike companies with a very distinctive viewpoint. They use lugged, steel frames (lugs are connectors that join steel frame tubes; you don’t see them much on modern bikes, but vintage bike fans love them.) Their bikes are not light, they use big tires and heavy wheels, and more upright positioning than you’d ever see on a current race bike.
By most conventional thinking, this is not what you’d want for going straight up for 10 miles. You’d want some sort of featherweight carbon thing than weighs less than an average bowling ball. But it turns out the Homer was perfect. Mt. Diablo’s roads are not smooth, and at times they’re scarily narrow, with significant, humility-inducing drops off the side. And the big tires and steel frame soak up these kinds of conditions beautifully. The Homer is a stable, very comfortable ride, wonderfully suited for ambling up dicey roads.
Yes, it’s heavy, but it’s also got a triple-crank, and even though I was going to tough it out in the middle ring, I dropped that idea after about 800 feet of climbing and got down to the granny gear, and I was grateful to have it, thank you very much.
I stayed in the wimp ring for the rest of the climb, and yes, there were a few spandexed racer dudes that zipped by me, and more power to them. I was going to take it slow. I stopped to take pictures, because the view is breathtaking. Which is not saying much, because I didn’t have much breath left to take, but what there was…. you get the idea.
One of the carbon dudes, who actually looked like he was in his 60s, (Dear Lord, please let me be in shape like that when I hit my 60s), took a break with me and warned me about the summit. The last 100 feet or so is the worst stretch, a 15-degree pitch, he said. Which is not what you want after climbing 3,900 feet.
After that warning, I decided to take a more philosophical approach. Enjoy the scenery as much as possible. Go pretty slow, save the breath. Get as far as possible, and if I didn’t make it, well, I’d come back better prepared next time.
Before I knew it, I was near the summit, staring at that 15-degree pitch. The road split into two, narrow one-ways, and I cranked down into my last gear and went for it. Very slowly. Before long I heard a car come up behind me, and I had to pull over to the gravel to let it go by. Just when I slowed, my left leg completely seized up in an excruciating cramp.
I think I frightened some German tourists with my cursing. Here I was, about 50 feet from fulfilling a nearly 20-year quest, and my leg gives out. 50 stupid, idiotic feet! So I stood there, straddling the bike, cursing at my leg until I could bend it again. Fuck you leg! Bend! The leg relented. I got back on the bike. You can’t really crawl on a bike, but that’s what that last 50 feet felt like.
But I made it. Homer got me up there. The ride down was obviously a whole lot faster, and the handling of that bike was stable, smooth and surprisingly nimble.
I still can’t believe those Rivendell guys, who don’t know me at all, just let me walk off with their bike. They even gave me a Rivendell cap when I got back (five minutes before the shop closed). Thanks Rivendell, for helping me beat the Devil, after all these years.