Sunday, August 10, 2014

Empire Grade

Yesterday I took a long bike ride, visiting Santa Cruz and Big Basin park, with Empire Grade in between.

View Empire Grade in a larger map

For one reason after another, I've rarely been able to take long, all-day rides in the past couple of years. But yesterday the stars aligned, so I set out to make the most of it. Accordingly, I got an early start, out just before 8 AM in the chilly morning air.

I took my usual route over Kennedy to Los Gatos, but at the entrance to the Los Gatos Creek Trail I saw that there was some sort of running event happening on the trail. It turned out to be the Dammit Run. The trail, which is the only route south through the mountains for miles around, was clogged with runners, and unusable.

I considered alternate routes, or just heading back home. But after a few minutes of sulking the density of runners eased, and indeed the runners coming by were now walk-running. Probably stragglers. What I would find out later was that the run had just started at the nearby high school shortly before I arrived, and so hadn't stretched out much when I first saw them. I waited a little while to give the race its peace, then headed down the trail myself, riding at a walking pace.

Watching the surfers at Opal Cliffs
At the dam the race and I separated, runners heading back over the Jones Trail while I continued on to Old Santa Cruz Highway and Capitola.

In the end I wasn't even delayed by the race. I wanted to eat lunch at Betty Burger, which meets all my picky needs for a mid-ride lunch -- outdoor seating, not too crowded, in view of the bike. Despite the delay from the race I arrived in the area before Betty Burger was open, so I dawdled along the coast between Capitola and Santa Cruz watching the surfers, then had my lunch.

After lunch I headed past the Boardwalk and up Bay Street to UCSC, where I turned on to High Street, which later morphs into Empire Grade. Empire Grade is an inconsistent climb, or perhaps series of climbs. The average is moderate, but the most difficult kilometer of the day was in this section, with a substantial 9.4% grade. Most of the climb runs through lovely shady woods, with moderate traffic.

A dragon near Empire Grade
At the intersection with Felton Empire and Ice Cream Grade I decided to take Ice Cream Grade over toward Bonny Doon. The only time I've ever come up Bonny Doon Road I cut over on Ice Cream Grade, so this would give me a chance to see the rest of Bonny Doon Road. I try to include new bits of road in my rides, so this was just a token.

Empire Grade climbs up above 2500 feet, then bounces along at that level for a surprisingly long stretch. Eventually I reached Jamison Creek Road and made the steep descent toward Big Basin Highway, and then to the park.

Big Basin park
At the park headquarters I bought a two sugary drinks and a Clif bar. This ride was becoming much longer than I had planned, and being out of practice for long rides I hadn't been thinking about nutrition at all. In fact, one of the reasons I got an early start was because I forgot to eat breakfast, a major mistake. I was thinking I would save the Clif bar for later, but I just sat down on a bench and finished the bar and both drinks.

The section of Big Basin Highway heading north toward Route 9 is one of the most beautiful roads in the area. Yesterday it was warm but not hot, most of the road is shaded as it passes through bucolic woods, and there was little traffic. Beautiful.

Big Basin Highway

After descending toward the junction with Route 9, I started on the last substantial climb of the day, up toward Saratoga Gap. I was definitely feeling the miles by this point, and realizing that this ride was going to be a surprise century, over 100 miles. I hadn't planned on that.

On the way down I passed by a recent motorcycle accident. Officials had yet to arrive, but perhaps 20 people were stopped, directing traffic and attending the rider. A somber sight. I continued my descent at a moderate speed, but to be honest that was only because I was held up behind a line of cars that were held up by another cyclist.

As I continued home I meandered a bit, trying to ensure that this ride was the longest I've recorded. That feels like cheating, so as a small penance I decided that any tacked-on distance would have to be uphill.

Elevation profile

This ride was a little over 104 miles, with over 9300 feet of climbing. Both records for me, and a nice surprise. A day well spent.

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