The 10 Toughest Climbs in California – Continued


Let’s begin by reviewing the list provided by John Sommerson,  The complete guide to climbing (by bike) in California. John’s list was very interesting to me and I found it at just the right time.  I was in a funk and hadn’t been riding.  I had lost all motivation to go out and really train (read suffer).  I thank John for his work on the California edition and his other books for inspiring me to get back out there and do what I love best about riding a bike — CLIMBING!  Since my last post, two weeks ago about the 10 Toughest Climbs in California, I have been in contact with John.  I asked him initially for clarification on start and finish of the climbs and then for advice.  John has been very patient with me and gracious with his time.  Thank you John — we’ll see you on the road.  Here is the list:

Most Difficult Climbs:

1) Onion Valley —               DONE 6/10/10 !!
2) Horseshoe Meadows — DONE 6/10/10!!
3) White Mountain—          DONE as part of Everest Challenge Stage Race
4) Sherman Pass DONE 6/24/10!!
5) Whitney Portal —          DONE 6/10/10!!
6) Mount Baldy–               DONE- too many times to mention
7) Shirley Meadows– DONE 6/24/10!!
8) South Lake—                  DONE as part of Everest Challenge Stage Race
9) Mount Palomar—           DONE 6/06/10!!
10) Mosquito Flat—           DONE as part of Everest Challenge Stage Race

Greatest Elevation Gained:

1) Horseshoe Meadows – 6,234 feet– DONE 6/10/10 !!
2) White Mountain – 6,204 feet
3) 190 – 6,199 feet
4) J21/245/180 – 5,750 feet
5) Mosquito Flat – 5,548 feet
6) Dantes View – 5,475 feet
7) South Lake – 5,445 feet
8) Sherman Pass – 5,316 feet– DONE 6/24/10!!
9) Emigrant Pass – 5,309 feet
10) Onion Valley – 5,169 feet DONE 6/10/10!!

Highest Elevation Attained:

1) Mosquito Flat – 10,220 feet
2) White Mountain – 10,152 feet
3) Horseshoe Meadows – 10,034 feet DONE 6/10/10!!
4) Tioga Pass – 9,945 feet
5) South Lake – 9,852 feet
6) Sonora Pass – 9,624 feet
7) Kaiser Pass – 9,184 feet
8) Onion Valley – 9,163 feet — DONE 6/10/10!!
9) Lake Sabrina – 9,141 feet
10) Sherman Pass – 9,126 feet– DONE 6/24/10!!

Today I climbed Shirley Meadows and Sherman Pass Road.  I have now completed the Top 10 list. The challenge of completing the list kept me motivated during the weeks in between my trips.  I planned, that is to say I daydreamed, and counted down the days until the next time I could escape to the mountains.  I now need to find another challenge.  In the meantime, let’s get on with today’s ride.

Garmin Connect Download

Ride with GPS Download


The scenic beauty of today’s ride was incredible.  I parked at a convenience store in Wofford Heights.  I asked the store employee if it was ok for me to leave my car there while I went for a bike ride and he mumbled what I think was “sure”.  Little did he know my bike rides are centuries with 11,400 feet of gain. I was less than one block away from the start of the Shirley Meadows climb.  It was very convenient in one respect but then I didn’t get a decent warm-up.  As soon as you make the turn onto Hwy 155 BAM! you are greeted with a double-digit pitch that shocks your legs — even if you had a proper warm-up.

The climb is nothing but one steep ramp after another.  This isn’t the type of climb where you sit down and settle-in to the climb.   This is a stand and grind, sit and recover …rinse and repeat type of climb.  I’m not kidding this is one steep climb but not all at once or in any semblance of a consistent grade like Onion Valley.  I had to take a picture of one of the caution signs when I descending– 11% for 5 miles–no wonder I was suffering so bad.  I would like to consider it a stair-step climb but that doesn’t describe it well enough either because there are only a couple of reliefs.  The climb is only 10 miles but it takes your legs and trashes them in just that short of a distance.

My Felt F2 with Di2 was plenty stiff on the steep grades and the Di2 shifted FLAWLESSLY!!

What are the redeemable qualities for all this pain and suffering?  The views! The views are spectacular.  The road is in pretty good shape.  So you can relax and look around when you’re not gripping your drop bars and pulling on them for dear life to turn the pedals over One.More.Time.  I was riding my 2010 Felt F2 with Di2 with a 53/39 crankset and a 12/27 cassette because John had given me a heads-up about the steep grades on this climb.  The 11/23 cassette I rode in the first edition of the 10 toughest climbs in California would have been a mistake today.  The sharp hairpin turns lead you from one picturesque wooded area to another.  And while the scenery is great on the way up, the descent is nothing short of breathtaking.  It is straight out of a European tourist magazine.  You descend with Lake Isabella down below and mountains and more mountains over-laying over each other as a backdrop.  I imagined this is what it must look like when descending into Lake Como in Switzerland.  My words just can’t do it justice– simply perfect postcard material at every turn!

Shirley Meadows Summit

Taken with my Blackberry phone–Like a bonehead I forgot my camera battery at home my Blackberry just didn’t capture it as I saw it live!

I refueled at my car and then started the 24ish miles to Sherman Pass Road.  I didn’t realize what a slog it would be.  There are pesky little rollers while you keep a 1-2% grade for 24 miles into a light headwind.  But once again you are rewarded with spectacular views.  You ride along the Kern river.  The water is rushing and you see it crashing and splashing on the rocks.  Then you look up and see cabins on the hillsides way off in the distance.  I tried to imagine how beautiful this place would look like with snow.  The views are postcard material yet again.

The Slog from Wofford Heights to Sherman Pass–1,500 feet of gain at .09% grade – in 24 miles

I was worried that I wasn’t going to have enough fluids for the 24 mile stretch AND the 15 mile Sherman Pass climb.  But 19.5 miles from Wofford Heights there was a small store in Fairview with a spigot outside.  I topped off and shortly thereafter I made the right turn onto Sherman Pass Road. Notice the climbing that begins at mile 20 and continues until you summit Sherman Pass Road at mile 60!!


I didn’t find the climb difficult.  The grades were consistent and the views were excellent.  It was just LOONG!  15 plus miles.  Funny story– about 1 mile into the climb I see a lot of cow patties.  I said to myself where would the cows come from and why would they be hanging out on THIS road.  About a mile later I see about 20 cows and calves grazing on the side of the road.  When they spotted me they were startled but stayed put.  As I got closer they started running up the mountain first at light trot then a full-on gallop.  I kept thinking where the heck are they going?  I didn’t see any place they could call home.  But then, seemingly out of nowhere, there is a very narrow road and a gate.  It was pretty comical seeing all the cows fighting to get through the gate.

The climb took me to 9200 feet and a clearing with an incredible vista.  It was well worth all my effort.  I didn’t like the descent only because the road was tore up in many places, there were sand patches and loose rock everywhere.

Sherman Pass Road- Obviously there weren’t 50% grades ignore the glitches

Sherman Pass Summit

The return leg back to Wofford Heights was really tough.  Even though I was generally going downhill I was riding into a headwind.  Yep pedaling downhill to maintain 15 mph.  How do you like that?  I eventually made it back but I was so frustrated. I had climbed that same section of road into a headwind and now I was descending it into a headwind.

11k of climbing in just 58 miles

In the very near future I will post my opinion about each of the 10 climbs on this list.  But for now I would like to say that today’s ride was the most scenic.  When taking into consideration its the sheer beauty, its leg sapping climbs and the scarcity of cars and people on the road, I say the Shirley Meadows and Sherman Pass century I did today wins hands down!

2010 Breathless Agony Ride Report

On Saturday May 1, I completed the Breathless Agony Century.  It is without a doubt a “climbing century”.  I wouldn’t recommend it as a first timer’s century.  The time cut-offs are listed below:

To complete the 3 or 4 Pass Options, you must begin the climb to Angelus Oaks from the Mill Creek Ranger Station Food Stop by 10:30 A.M.

The Angelus Oaks Rest Stop closes at 1:00 P.M. and you must leave there before 1:00 P.M. in order to complete 4 Passes of this ride.

The Onyx Summit Rest Stop closes at 3:30 P.M. and you must arrive there before 3:30 P.M. in order to complete 4 Passes of this ride.

Source: Breathless Agony website

In my opinion, the ideal rider is someone who has been riding for sometime and loves to climb!  The stats are 114 miles with 12,000 feet of climbing.  However, the timed portion of the event, is 11,000 feet of climbing in the first 75 miles!

I’ve done this event several times and have had mixed results.  I have provided the results and the links to the event website below.

2004 Time of 6:50 45th place

2006 Time of 5:58 34th Place

2007 Time of 5:40 21st Place — Personal Record

2008 Time of 6:09 66th Place

2010 Time of 5:59 68th Place


Today’s ride was very tough.  I have been in a funk lately and haven’t been training.  The last time I rode my bike was April 17, two weeks ago, for the Mount Laguna Bicycle Classic (MLBC).   My race report is here.  Prior to MLBC I had also been off the bike for at least two weeks.  By the way, I would consider MLBC a climbing century as well.  It is a century with 10,000 feet of climbing. With all this time off the bike my result today of 6 hours, probably isn’t that bad but I am really hard on myself.

I had many “WTF moments” during the ride particularly at times when I was barely pushing the pedals and merely producing 150 watts.  I also battled with the same cramping issues I had at the MLBC.  But I have decided it is just from poor fitness or better yet NO fitness.  In the last 45 days I have done less than 10 rides.  That would be one ride every 5 days.  But that’s how funny averages and math can be because I was off the bike much more than 5 days at a time.  Back on April 3-4 weekend I rode Saturday and Sunday doing the Hell’s Gate Hundred and Towne Pass century plus. But then  I didn’t ride for two weeks until the April 17th.  You can’t expect to do well at a climbing century if you are not fit.  I got ‘er done but it wasn’t pretty.

Clothing— Bike Religion kit, short sleeve base layer, Furnace Creek 508 vest, Wool gloves, Wool knee warmers,

Bike — Rebecca– Cervelo R3 SL, Compact Crank 50/34 and 11/23 Cassette, Power Tap Ant + and a Garmin 310XT.

Weight— 144lbs

As you can see from the map above Breathless Agony starts and finishes in Redlands. The call-outs are:

1. Mile 17.8 – left turn onto Jack Rabbit Trail

2.  Mile 22.0- right onto Highway 60

3.  Mile 26.6- Beaumont Ave checkpoint

4. Mile 43.6- Mill Creek Ranger Station

6. Mile 54.6- Angelus Oaks

7.  Mile 74.2 Onyx Summit

There are three options for the ride.  You can do two passes, three passes or the whole enchilada of four passes.  I have always done the four pass option.

Power Chart for Timed Portion Only
Data for Timed Portion 

The graph above is from Training Peaks 3.0.  It shows only the timed portion of the event.

Orange– Elevation Profile

Yellow– Power

Blue– Speed

Green– Cadence

I rolled at 7am with the Santiago Cycling club.  It was a massive group of at least 30 riders.  It was nice to ride out with a big group and benefit from the draft for the first few miles.  New for this year, or least since the last time I rode the event in 2008, is a checkpoint at mile 12.  The checkpoint was a surprise to me (no I don’t read the route sheet on this event 😉 .  As I was coming up on it I saw a large crowd of cyclists huddled around someone and my first thought it was– CRASH!

Redlands to Jack Rabbit Trail

Data from Redlands to Jack rabbit Trail

Data above is from the start in Redlands to the left turn onto Jack Rabbit Trail — Pass 1.  We were moving at a good pace with an average speed of 19.3 mph and my normalized power was 209 watts (3.2 w/kg). I got dropped on the first little climb but I knew that wasn’t my pace anyway.

Jack Rabbit Trail

Data for Jack Rabbit Trail Climb

The climb on Jack Rabbit Trail is always sketchy. But I found the trail to be in really bad shape on Saturday.  It seemed to me that the potholes and ruts were bigger. The sand and gravel patches were bigger.  The road was so bad in some areas that they were barricaded to ensure riders wouldn’t fall in what appeared to be sink holes.  It’s hard to maintain and even and steady effort through this climb.  I faded a little and let riders pass me that I thought on any other day I would be passing them.  My average speed for the Jack Rabbit Trail climb was 10.2 mph and my normalized power was 207 (3.2 w/kg). So far so good not a stellar performance but not THAT bad.

Oak Glen Climb

Oak Glen Climb Data

I consider the hardest climb of the four passes to be the Oak Glen Climb.  The other climbs are longer but the pitches are not as steep so they are easier to climb.  I made my up the climb thinking to myself “Man I really should be training more often”.  By the time I passed Chuck Bramwell’s water and photo taking spot I was really in the hurt locker.  I couldn’t produce any power and was just limping along.  I crested and began the high-speed descent down towards Mill Creek Ranger Station.  My average speed for the Oak Glen climb was 8.3 mph and my normalized power was 182 watts (2.78 w/kg).

Angelus Oaks Climb

Angelus Oaks Climb Data

After a quick stop at Mill Creek Ranger Station it was now time for the 30 miles of climbing that take you to Onyx Summit.  The next section is an 11 mile climb.  The hard part in my opinion is the section of road called Damnation Alley.  The weather was mild on Saturday.  On a hot day that the “Alley” can roast you since there is no shade to be found.  What I find tough about this section of road is that you can’t tell you are climbing but sure enough your legs struggle to keep the speed up.  I was really dragging and just turning the pedals over.  It wasn’t until I reached the Forest Falls turn off where I came into a spurt of energy.  I was able to maintain that momentum until Angelus Oaks.  My average speed to Angelus Oaks was 8.3 mph and my Normalized Power was 180 watts (2.75 w/kg)

Onyx Summit Climb

Data for Onyx Summit Climb

The last climb isn’t that hard but you are fatigued and so it feels harder than it really is.  Additionally, you are at altitude from 6,000 feet to 8,443 at Onyx Summit.  Leaving Angelus Oaks the road has a lot of rollers and you get a chance to recover from your 11 mile climb.  It is a 19 mile stretch from Angelus Oaks to Onyx Summit but it’s not until the last 10 miles that you reach a sustained climbing section.

I was struggling with cramps and just overall fatigue.  I was counting down the miles and half miles too.  I passed the 7,000 elevation sign and remembered the last time I was on the mountain.  Brandy and I had done a training ride to Big Bear City.  She was on her multi-speed and I was on my Fixed Gear with a 49 x 18 gear.
I remember climbing ahead of her and taking pictures of the elevation signs and my bike parked in front of them.   I was really suffering and my pace was slowing dramatically.  I then see the 8,000 foot elevation sign.  I think ok 443 more feet of gain and this freaking thing is done.  Back home there is a hill called Newport Coast and it is 450 feet of gain in 1.5 miles.  Thank goodness because I wouldn’t want to go another mile more.

When I reached the summit, I got my picture taken, grabbed my “medal”, grabbed some strawberries, a banana, chips, water and I was headed down the mountain immediately.   I don’t like hanging out on the top of the mountain because the descent just gets colder and colder the longer you stay up there.  Besides there is much better food available at the finish.

So there you have it my Breathless Agony report.  I didn’t experience being “breathless” because I couldn’t ride hard enough.  I was fatigued, cramped and just plain out of shape for a climbing century.

This painful event served as a wake-up call.  No matter the funk or personal strifes going on in my life I NEED TO RIDE BY BIKE.  My bike has always been my way of keeping myself sane and physically fit.

What’s next for the Red Eyed Vireo?  I don’t really know because I am required to work the weekends I don’t have my son.  So unless I start racing on the weekends I have my son I may not have races to report about here on my blog.  The Furnace Creek 508 looms over me as it is May now and I have only five months to get ready for it.  I won’t have the benefit of doing events at race pace.  Training alone just doesn’t replicate the demands of racing.  But you know, things have a way of sorting themselves out over time.

Thank you for reading my blog.  Please pass it along to your friends, subscribe to it, and post comments if you feel so inclined.



Hell’s Gate Hundred- Done!

Wow what an awesome ride.  The Hell’s Gate Hundred exceeded my expectations!  100 miles with 8.500 feet of climbing!  Artist Drive was a pleasant surprise.  I didn’t know that loop existed and it was very cool.  The Hell’s Gate climb that went on and on to Daylight Pass– 16 miles about 4500 feet of gain– niiice!!

I’m very happy with my performance.  I had a couple of issues early on but then had a great ride afterwards.

 I’ll post more later but I just wanted to drop a quick post.

What’s next for the Red Eyed Vireo?

I’m trying to decide if I should do the Hell’s Gate Hundred ,an event put on by AdventureCorps, on April 3.  I love doing their events because:

1. they are in Death Valley and
2. they are professionally run from the race director to the volunteers.

What’s holding me back?  Well I’m already doing the Mount Laguna Bicycle Classic on April 17th (my pre-ride here) and I’m supposed to work weekends- or at least one of the two days.

Here is the graph looks challenging and fast.  I’m 100% in but what will work say?  Stay tuned….