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.
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.
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.