The Mulholland Challenge

In the cycling world, California has a reputation. By all the accounts that really matter, Marin County is the birthplace of mountain biking. The greater Bay Area is known as one of the top cycling locales in the U.S., if not the world, due to such factors as the climate, terrain and tight-knit cycling community. The Lost Coast and points north are legendary for idyllic, if remote riding. The Central Valley is the home to remote bike races that unfold at lactate-inducing speeds under anything but optimal conditions.

And then there’s Southern California. Though it’s known as home to a huge swath of bike industry heavyweights, it is generally viewed as the Karl Rove of the bike industry: an effective player, if somewhat embarrassing.

A few years ago I wrote a guide book to riding in Southern California. “Cycling Los Angeles County” is composed of 40 different road rides that do everything from tour Hollywood to describe in detail the legendary Simi Ride. Yes, I talked the publisher in allowing me to include a half-dozen different group rides.

The book was a chance, in my view, to argue the case for Southern California’s right to be thought of as one of the great cycling locales. I wasn’t setting the record straight, mind you, too much had been asserted counter to that for one book to correct that perception, but I thought anyone who picked it up might be pleasantly exposed to a new perspective on the greater L.A. metropolis.

While I think there is good and interesting riding throughout Los Angeles County (not to mention Orange County), there is a gem that makes SoCal riding not just good, not just memorable, but truly world-class.

In a word: Malibu.

Yes, that place known better for paparazzi and surfers. Malibu is where the Santa Monica Mountains run headlong into the Pacific Ocean with all the reckless abandon of a runaway shopping cart rolling downhill.

It would take you a week of 100-mile rides to hit each of the climbs and it would take another five years for you to become comfortable with all the descents. Think of all the challenges you’ve ever faced on a road descent: decreasing radius turns; off-camber turns; sand and gravel; landslides; broken pavement; steep pitches; sudden changes in gradient; even decreasing radius, off-camber turns. Anything that can make a road descent more challenging can be found in the mountains and canyons above Malibu.

A single organized ride takes in the challenges of Malibu. Planet Ultra‘s Mulholland Challenge is the first event of the King of the Mountains Challenge, an annual series that takes in three events that each last more than 100 miles and force participants to climb more than 10,000 feet.

The 2010 event took place on Saturday. Due to the difficulty of the event, it doesn’t draw crowds on the order of thousands. Nope, this one, at 116 miles and 13,000 feet of climbing scares off more than it attracts, given its location (easy to reach, but hard to complete), making it rather the opposite of one of California’s best-known and best-attended centuries, Solvang.

The course features but one significant flat of roughly five miles. The rest of the time you’re going either up or down. And it’s not just any up or down. Double-digit grades are more common than rattlesnakes out there. I saw 15% on the Garmin several times and saw 17% once. Knowing what was in store for me, I opted to go with a 34×27 low gear and while I was able to wind out the 50×12 a few times while on descents, I loved always having the right gear for the terrain at hand.

The Mulholland Challenge is unlike any other century ride containing more than 10,000 feet of climbing in that I can really only point to four sustained (5k or longer) climbs. And yet, you are (with the aforementioned exception) always going up or down. The often short, steep hills that came in such rapid succession had me flashing on the previous week’s Tour of Flanders.

The day’s big challenge comes at mile 75, the climb up Decker Rd. Readers who recall my reviews of the Specialized Tarmac and Roubaix bikes know that I decided to compare the two bikes in descending Decker for the post “The Crucible.” I’ve climbed Decker only one other time—during a previous edition of this ride.

The first two-thirds of the climb average a more than 12% gradient. There’s a long stretch of 15% near the bottom punctuated by a little 17% kicker, which is kind of like flushing lactic acid out of your legs with sulfuric acid. Honestly, you don’t notice a big change.

As organized rides go, this one is spectacularly difficult. There’s just no way to remember all the hills, unlike, say, The Markleeville Death Ride (or the Tour of the California Alps, depending on your affinity). Markleeville features five climbs and four of them are the two sides of two mountains, so you only need to remember three names. If you can’t remember that, the ride organizer is willing to pin the route sheet to your jersey, just like your homework assignment in grade school.

Psychologically, the lack of certainty that shrouds much of the course means you must concentrate and not be easily demoralized.

I’d love to see this ride run as a Gran Fondo. That’s literally the only way this thing could be improved upon. The food is good (Clif and Hammer products are available at every rest stop—no Country Time lemonade here!) and the course is well-marked. It is held at a perfect point in the spring, meaning you never know if it will be sunny and hot or overcast and cool. You’ve got to be prepared.

I did almost get my wish this year. A large group collected at the start waiting for 8:00 to start. Roughly 20 of us rolled out together. There was a big contingent of Velo 605 riders from Orange County (not just Newport but its pricier enclave Corona Del Mar) and they did much to drive the train the first 25 miles—until we hit the  steeps of Topanga Canyon and then things, uh, things didn’t last.

If groups like that keep collecting at the start, waiting for the 8:00 mandatory start-by time, I could have a lot of fun at Breathless Agony and the Heartbreak Hundred.

As courses go, this one is right up there with Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo. It’s a shame the event isn’t better known. Do this ride and your opinion of Southern California riding will change for the better.

I promise.

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8 comments

  1. todd k

    Sounds like a fun and challenging ride. Thanks for the write up as I had never come across it previously. Maybe one of these days the stars will align and I will get down there to make a go of it.

    Word of mouth seems to work in favor of these amplifying the desireability of folks making an effort to getting to these challenging rides. I wouldn’t be surprised that word continues to spread for this event given it appears to have something special going for it.

  2. Souleur

    These are the best stories, the lesser known up and comers. I really appreciate the effort people put into these rides, and the riders who make it happen! It makes me wish I were in Cali more often.

    great article Padraig!

  3. Pascal

    Anyone heard of the Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnée? (D2R2- not in Cali but on the other side in MA) While this is not a full-on road ride, it certainly looks like a challenge, especially if the only modification to your road bike is bigger tires. (~180K, 16500 ft of climbing, 70% dirt/gravel roads) I am looking forward to the, as you put it, spectacular difficulty.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Pascal: Yes, I’ve heard of D2R2. It’s on my list to do. Richard Sachs cited it as the main reason he left Connecticut for Massachusetts. I can’t wait until I can get back to my old stomping grounds and do that ride. I used to train a lot on dirt roads in Western Mass. and really miss that.

      SinglespeedJarv: Thanks. I was rather pleased with that one as well. It’s a tough shot to get at speed.

  4. Marco Placero

    Jun 12, 2010: Auburn Century in California’s version of the Pyrenees: http://www.wildestride.com/
    Options: 140 miles/ 17,000 vertical feet; or 110 miles/ 12,000 feet; or 70 miles/ 7,000 feet. Bust a nut.
    Includes Iowa Hill; average gradient 13.5% for 1.75 miles, pitches in the 20%s. Bust the other nut.
    This funride is in steep canyons and mountain peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains west of Lake Tahoe, spectacular views, awesome support and camaraderie. The Tour of California route from Nevada City is on some of these roads. But the ToC fears Iowa Hill.
    Padraig: Cool bike components and especially the kit. Glad you’re out diggin’

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