Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sierra and Calaveras

In the interest of avoiding Christmas tree choppers in the Santa Cruz mountains, this week I decided to explore some new territory for me. Specifically, I wanted to see what was on top of Sierra Road.

View Sierra and Calaveras in a larger map

Chris Horner
Chris Horner climbing Sierra Road
Courtesy of flickr
I'm not especially interested in checking off the major climbs in the area, in the sense that I record "personal best" times or such things. But I'm certainly interested in exploring new roads, so it amounts to the same thing, but at a relaxed pace. In this case, I've seen these hills for years, and was looking forward to seeing what was on the other side of them.

For me, as a casual fan of bike racing, Sierra Road is most notable as the site of Chris Horner's amazing attack on stage 4 of the 2011 Tour of California. After climbing up the backside of Mount Hamilton as a warm-up, Horner had an amazing ride up this difficult road, and essentially won the tour with that effort.

My ride would look a little different.

I started out at about 9:30, bundled up a bit against the sub-40 degree temperature.  I headed toward the east valley on Blossom Hill. Blossom Hill crosses all the north/south highways, then climbs up a little hill before it drops into the east valley. Maybe not such a little hill -- although it only climbs a few hundred feet, there's a half-mile stretch with a grade over 11%. I don't know how steep the other side is, but my speedometer was north of 40 mph as I was heading down. A good warm-up, I suppose.

The first ramp of Sierra Road
After a few miles on unremarkable suburban roads, I finally reached Sierra Road and turned east, toward the hills. The first ramp is immediately in your face, and so preposterously steep that I laughed out loud. I took a picture and deep breath, and headed up.

Like all these eastern hills, there's very little tree cover. That was actually welcome on this mid-December day, but on a hot summer day I'd be boiling on this climb. The road heads straight up the hill through a residential neighborhood, then takes a sharp left turn and begins winding through increasingly sparsely populated hills.

The data I collected told me that the main climb -- from the bottom to the first peak -- was about 3.6 miles at 9.5%.  It was steep everywhere, with some especially tough ramps. If I remember correctly, the only streches with an even moderate grade were very near the top.

Looking south from Sierra Road.
Umunhum and Loma Prieta in the background
Sierra Road is famous for its views, but yesterday there was a haze over the valley that, looking into the sun, made it look like a thick layer of fog.

After reaching about 2000 feet, the road undulates at that level around the east side of the hill. The views of the valley give way to views of Mount Hamilton and the rest of the Diablo range. After Sierra Road turns into Felter it starts dropping.

At the intersection of Felter and Calaveras, I stopped to plan a bit. I was about 30 miles into the ride. The road to the left led back into the valley, and practically speaking would mean that I would just head home. To the right, the road led to the Calaveras Reservoir, then north for a few miles before crossing into Felton. In all, it would add another 25 miles to the ride.

Calaveras Reservoir and Dam
The road toward Calaveras Reservoir headed up a bit, and I thought I'd see what could be seen from the top of that hill, but then turn around and return through town.

First, that little hill was a lot steeper than I expected -- about 10%, if only a quarter-mile long. Second, once I got to the top I didn't turn around. Seeing these (relatively) remote roads is the whole reason I came up here, after all.

It was definitely the right choice. Calaveras Road shrinks to a single lane and winds along the hill above the reservoir. It's quiet and wooded, and on this day a little chilly. There were a few bike riders, a couple of cars, and otherwise I had the whole road to myself.

After the dam the road drops down into a broadening valley floor, then heads mostly north toward 680. At that point the road turns into Paloma Way and turns west. Shortly afterward it heads into something called Niles Canyon, which manages to cross the mountain range without gaining any altitude at all. It's a very pretty road, running next to Alameda Creek and a railroad line, then surrounded by towering hills. Unfortunately it's also a two lane road with no shoulder and a lot of traffic, so it's hard to enjoy the sights (let alone snap a picture).

The canyon exits into Fremont. At this point it was about 2:30 in the afternoon, so I was about 30 miles from home with perhaps two and a half hours of daylight remaining. It looked OK, but I didn't have time to look for picturesque routes home. So I hopped on Mission Boulevard, a large road that at least had a bike lane, and headed south.

Mission San Jose in Fremont
After crossing 680 again, Mission Boulevard quite appropriately passes by the Mission San Jose. I would have loved to look around a bit, but as I was pressed for time I settled for a few pictures.

After that it was just a series of suburban roads, mostly with bike lanes, and crossing 680 two or three more times. I ended up getting home shortly after the sun set, just a little late.

Elevation profile.
See a note about data for details.

In all it was just short of 83 miles. There was only 3600 feet of climbing, but it seems like all of it was very steep. That's a long ride for me, but a very pleasant one. I'm glad I had the chance to see what was up there.

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