Going Up

by Alastair Bland, June 9, 2011

Gravity dictates the truest mantra on Earth: What goes up must come down.

But give me a bicycle and a mountain, and I’ll break that law or die trying. Whether by blessing or curse, I am drawn unstoppably to hills and the roads that go up them. I scorn horizontal distances, always looking to optimize my rise over run. I try to climb 3000 feet a day on the local slopes, and doing so with as little forward motion as possible is ideal. To meet this floor minimum, I have my favorite routes. Mount Tamalpais will do it — except the roundtrip is 40 miles. That just won’t do.

But in the Marin Headlands, the popular McCullough-Conzelman grade climbs 700 feet in just 1.5 miles. And in Sonoma County, Cavedale Road offers excellent bang for buck — 2100 vertical feet over seven miles horizontal. Far away, in Turkey, where I recently toured alone, I pedaled one afternoon from a sea level valley of banana orchards 6000 feet up over 20 miles forward, into a landscape of goatherds, brown bears, and wind-scraped crags. I ran out of water a mile from the top and camped in a grimy gravel quarry, but I slept on a bed of satisfaction. And one of the best climbs on Earth, which I’m yet to experience, may be the paved road up Haleakala Volcano on Maui; it climbs 10,000 feet in 36 miles.

It’s a steep road that I ride, but in this life I’m not alone. On my daily outings, I have come to know by face several dozen others who plainly bear the familiar burden of the hill hunter. These cyclists come in different molds. There is the competitive sort, blinded by the sweat in his eyes and bent on annihilating distances. For example, while pedaling the McCullough-Conzelman climb in November, a man composed of Lycra, Gu and carbon pulled alongside me.

“Hey, man, you’re really moving!” he shouted fiercely, seemingly doped on blood. “You race?!”

I couldn’t resist: “No. I just kick ass.”

“You ever hear of the Everest Challenge?!”

“No, but have you heard of this ten-mile climb in Hawa-”

“No, no!” he bellowed. “FIFTEEN THOUSAND FEET!! The hardest ride in the WORLD!!” He let that sink in a moment, his eyes burning, sweat streaming off his nose, smoke billowing from his ears, then whispered gravely, “I’ve done it.”

I kicked into high gear and ditched him.

There are, after all, likeable hill-hunters, cool-headed, calm men and women who are as glad to slow down and chat as they would be to say “On your left” to a peloton of racers. One of these riders is a soft-spoken man who takes long, steady climbs as medicine and therapy. Years ago, he told me, he found himself uncharacteristically winded while riding a routine slope. He suspected the worst, went to the doctor, and found he’d been right: Cancer. Today, he credits cycling as a factor in his ongoing recovery. Another time, I fell in beside a middle-aged man working toward the top of Conzelman. He said he cycled here almost every day in place of antidepressants prescribed by his doctor after a brain operation. “As long I hit a heart rate of 170 for an hour every other day, I’m good,” he said.

But hills can hurt, too, and I confess that some days I recoil from the mere thought of fighting gravity up a mountain. It’s then that I rediscover the pleasure of passing an afternoon like most people might prefer — without sweating a drop. But always the urge returns to pounce on the nearest road that goes up, to get high once more on the burn of muscle, the stretch of the lungs, and the pounding of my heart. I can remember the pre-hill era of my life, when I didn’t require such exercise to keep me sane. Somehow, within the past six years, daily physical rigor has become a chemical requirement. I’m addicted.

Occasionally, for kicks, I watch the clock between bottom and top. My best time up Old La Honda Road, in San Mateo County — 1300 feet in about three miles — is just over 19 minutes. My best time up Conzelman is 10 minutes. My best time up the Trinity Grade near Sonoma was just a hair over 20, which the pros can spank in about 13 minutes. For a while I kept a protractor and plum bob fixed to my frame, cataloguing the steepest hills. Locally, Broderick Street in San Francisco’s Marina District ranks first — a 38- percent grade. Without a granny gear up front, I can just barely manage Broderick without puking.

But I’m more interested in arcane, incidental records — like the time a friend and I shared a barrel-aged imperial stout called The Abyss atop Mount Diablo after cycling to the 3800-foot summit. That, I dare proclaim, was a first. Another time I pedaled a durian fruit fresh from Thailand to the top of Mount Tamalpais and devoured the thing, an event I suspect had not happened before in the history of the universe — but now I’m bragging.

While hills today might measure my rise, someday they will only trace my fall. As I grow older, the grades that I ride regularly will seem to grow steeper, and one by one I will have to cast them off as feats beyond my abilities. Broderick Street will probably be the first one to go, thereby announcing that I have begun on life’s long descent. With time and age, more routine climbs will join the ranks of the unclimbables, and the hour will come when I summit my last peak. I may not know it then, but I know this now: I will arrive at the top, inhale the view, perhaps even see a sunset, then take my descent, and, for whatever reason it may be, never go up again.

Because gravity wins in the end, and every hill hunter must come down.

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