The Breathless Agony
They are, in the purest sense, pilgrimages. Like the trip the devout make to the Santiago de Campostela or the Hajj, these rides give shape to the participants’ cycling lives, adding purpose to their riding and providing incentive to live deliberately, that is, with a training plan and a diet that sacrifices tonight’s indulgence for tomorrow’s performance.
They are holy days, these rides; they are anything but another ride. These days are remembered on calendars, occasions both solemn and joyous.
In the U.S. we function as if we got the holy days and the rules, but none of the books or prophets. It’s a strange life we lead.
There are perhaps two dozen recreational events that take in courses on which legends could be written. Take any of them and run pro races over them for 50 years, and you’d have a mythology rich enough on which to build not just clubs, but communities.
Doubt that? Ask anyone what the Philadephia neighborhood of Manayunk was like in 1980. It was working class—which is to say poor—and anything other than hip. Today, thanks in no small part to a race that made a steep hill the most pivotal part of its course, Manayunk is one of the hipper enclaves in Philly. At least, that’s how they pitch it.
Most regions have an event that takes on truly legendary status locally, if not nationally, even without the aid of great racing. In the Southeast there’s the Assault on Mt. Mitchell. In New England, there’s D2R2. In the Pacific Northwest, there’s Seattle to Portland among others. In the Southwest, El Tour de Tucson. In California exists a true embarrassment of riches—courses of such difficulty that the Amgen Tour of California could use them to run a 10-day race that would exceed in difficulty the Dauphiné Libéré or the Tour de Suisse.
Truly, I’ve participated in nine events that exceed 100 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing over the length of the course. I’m aware of another three or four that qualify, and that’s without going crazy with the double century stuff.
Of those, one of the little-known gems is the Breathless Agony. Annually, only 750 riders are permitted to participate in the ride. The spots sell out within a day or two of registration opening.
Having ridden it a few times, the ride feels like it contains four climbs, though on paper it doesn’t really look that way. The first climb comes roughly five miles into the ride, is two miles long and climbs a bit more than 500 feet. The second is over a road that was formerly paved and these days is mostly dirt and potholes. It starts about 16 miles into the ride and climbs roughly 850 feet in four miles. Rest following the climb comes in the form of one short dip followed by roughly eight miles of false flat.
The third climb of the day is substantial. Oak Glen has been used in the Redlands Classic. It’s five miles long and climbs 1700 feet, give or take. It also has some surprisingly steep pitches; plenty of stretches hit 10 percent while one short section tips skyward at a cruel 16 percent.
The organizers like to think of the climb from the ranger’s station at the edge of Redlands up to Angelus Oaks as separate from the rest of the climb from Angelus Oaks to Onyx Summit. I’m not that easily fooled. Breaking up a climb with a rest stop that precedes some big rollers is a pleasant respite, but in the end it feels like one big-ass climb. Making matters even more difficult is the fact that the second half of the climb to Onyx takes you from 5800 feet of elevation up to 8500.
By the time I reach the top, I feel like the elevation has shaved about 30 watts off my output. It’s an ugly, humiliating business.
Organizers take your time at Onyx Summit, 75 miles into the 112-mile ride. The ride back is almost entirely downhill. Total climbing is about 12,000 feet.
I, like most riders I know, am wrecked the day following this ride. This thing ought to be the crown jewel of a whole series of gran fondos. Fortunately, the organizers of Breathless Agony teamed up with Planet Ultra to create a series, the King of the Mountains competition which takes in two Planet Ultra events (the Mulholland Challenge and the Heartbreak Hundred) plus Breathless Agony over a seven-week span.
I’d love to see this run as a true gran fondo so that at least you don’t have to stop periodically and give your name to someone with a clipboard in order to check in. It’s a rotten system. Markleeville, Mulholland and many other rides just paste a colored sticker on your race number and send you on your way. It’s much, much quicker. A few controlled intersections could be a great addition as well.
That said, the ride can’t be faulted for not being more than it is. With limited sponsorship, the organizers have managed to put on a stunning course that accommodates a wide disparity in rider abilities.
On balance, it’s not as pretty as Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo or the Mulholland Challenge. Nor is it as hard as the Markleeville Death Ride (also known as the Tour of the California Alps). Nonetheless, I put it in the top-10 of California events. This is one of those rides that ought to be on your bucket list.