Saturday morning on Rapha’s Gentleman’s ride in Santa Monica rider Robert Hyndman died. Robert was descending Las Flores Canyon Road when he crashed. There’s been a fair amount of hand-wringing and Monday-morning quarterbacking about this tragedy and as a result, I’ve decided to weigh in, if for no other reason than my years of experience with those canyon roads.
Let me begin by saying that I consider Slate, Jeremy, Derrick and Gerben at Rapha all friends. Double for Alison and Steven at Bike Effect, the studio at which the ride originated. What I’m about to write is as much for them as it is for anyone who has never ridden the canyon roads of the Santa Monicas.
Of the many mountain ranges around the world graced with roads suitable to cycling, the Santa Monicas are unusual in that no other range of mountains has more magazine editors within 50 miles and had less written about them. I penned the only survey of those mountains I know to have been published by a bike magazine. A few years ago I wrote “Malibu: Heaven has mountains” for Road Bike Action. And yes, I declared that the Santa Monicas were my idea of heaven. I also declared that riding the canyon roads above Malibu is far more challenging than riding in the Alps or even the Pyrenees. I believe if you can descend those canyons, you can ride anywhere, even the roads of the Chartreuse and Vercors, which are themselves more difficult than the actual Alps.
Every year the event promoter Planet Ultra puts on a ride called the Mulholland Challenge. At roughly 110 miles and 12,000 feet of climbing it is one of the hardest rides I’ve ever completed. Say what you want about La Marmotte or The Tour of the California Alps (Death Ride), hitting a kilometer-long pitch of 17 percent at the base of a 7km climb once you’ve got 75 miles in your legs can humble almost anyone. Each year more than 700 riders enter the Mulholland Challenge. The event (it sits somewhere between a gran fondo and a century) has had its share of crashes, particularly on the descent of Deer Creek Road, but no one has ever died.
My sense of empathy suggests that Steven, Alison, Slate and co. may feel some guilt over Robert’s death. It’s hard to have a heart and not feel some burden of responsibility. However, the Gentleman’s Ride was not a bad route. It was not a dangerous route, though it contained some risk.
If we conclude that the day’s route was dangerous, the logical outcome of that is all future Rapha rides in Los Angeles will head north on Pacific Coast Highway and then turn around at some pre-arranged spot for the trip south. Believe me, it can be good riding, but it’s not the same as being in the canyons.
To be a cyclist is to live the balance between risk and danger. I define danger as something likely to end in a bad outcome. Mount Washington averages 12 percent; as a result, no one is allowed to descend it. Were you to try, the odds are that you’d crash from too much speed or blow a tire off the rim from too much braking; there’s no real room for a middle ground on that road. Risk, on the other hand, is what we face every time we go out for a ride. There’s always a chance that we could be hit by a car, wash out in a corner or encounter some other bad event. The difference is that with reasonable care we can avoid a rotten outcome most of the time.
Think of every road you’ve heard a cyclist has died on. It would be ridiculous to conclude that in each instance in which a rider encountered a mishap—nothing involving a car—that the road was too dangerous to ride on. It’s true that Las Flores is a challenging descent. It’s also true that Robert had considerable skill; the point at which he crashed he could not have reached without having previously exercised both skill and judgment. Corollary: Last year’s Gentleman’s Ride descended Tuna Canyon, easily the most difficult descent in the Santa Monicas, the most difficult descent I’ve ever encountered, the only paved descent that has ever scared me. We got down that without an inch of lost skin last year.
In criticizing the course of the Rapha Gentleman’s Ride as too difficult, as dangerous, two injustices are committed. First, we dishonor the memory of a strong and skilled cyclist. Accidents happen. I can’t say exactly what took place that day as I wasn’t there, but I’ve dropped down that road dozens of times and I can attest that there were days when I couldn’t have gone wrong and other days when I just didn’t have it and wished I was taking another route down.
The second injustice is the denigration of a spectacular land formation. If I were to define my idea of heaven with the terrain of one spot on earth, there’s no doubt that I’d choose Malibu. The views from atop its vistas rival anything I’ve seen. Better yet, I can ride there year-round. I’d hate to think that people would avoid the roads above Malibu because of one cyclist’s misfortune.
What I’ve learned of Robert’s family and friends is that they are taking solace knowing that he was engaged in the world, riding with family and friends that day, that he died doing one of his favorite things in the world. Though I never met him, the simple fact that he drove up from Orange County to do a Rapha Gentleman’s Ride means he was on the lookout for new adventures. This guy was certainly one of my peeps.
For each of us there came a point when cycling ceased to be just a way to have fun and became an expression of challenge, a way to embrace new difficulties and to elevate both skill and fitness.
A good friend of mine wrote that while people have lionized Robert for dying while doing what he loved, he thought dying on his bike was “a shit way to die.” I can’t disagree. I’m sure his parents ache for not having a chance to say goodbye. When I go, I don’t want to be on my bike; I want to be surrounded by my family. Ultimately, I think what resonates with people is that in dying while doing what he loved, his death illustrates that he tried to live his life on his terms, that he wasn’t some couch potato. The danger is that romanticizing this accident is no better than letting a fear of that road prevent us from riding it.
I’ve made mistakes before and crashed. I’ll make mistakes again. The last thing in the world I’d want my error to do is cause people to avoid exciting roads. I can’t speak for Robert or his family, but the example of his life suggests that he would endorse getting on with the business of living by putting ourselves out there and we achieve that electric thrill no one will ever get from the TV.
The greatest service we can do our fellow riders is to remember them accurately, to ride with the care that will keep us out there, to remain clear on the difference between danger and risk, and to keep that sense of adventure alive.
Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing. Or maybe it was my relationship with my dad. Maybe I’m just defective. Somewhere, somehow, I blurred the line between suffering and fun.
Confusing suffering and fun is like confusing blue and orange or atheism and Catholicism. Truly, they don’t have much in common. Or, at least, they shouldn’t.
The upshot is that I’m at my best on rides between 60 and 80 miles but I keep choosing to do centuries and gran fondos that take me way beyond my comfort zone. And despite the fact that I’m not particularly fast, my preference is for rides reminiscent of a Yes song—long and difficult.
This season, for the second time since it has been offered, I’ve undertaken the King of the Mountains Challenge. Three centuries and the easiest of them is the final one, the Heartbreak Hundred. At 100 miles exactly, and containing 8500 feet of climbing, it’s both the shortest and flattest of the bunch. That’s relative, of course. Finding a century with more than 5000 feet of climbing is tougher than you think.
Here in the United States there is an organization called the Bicycle Ride Directors’ Association of America. The BRDAA has a Ride Rating System that ranks rides with a six-star legend (apparently, five wasn’t enough). Rides that rate six stars are centuries that have at between 3000 and 3500 feet of climbing (maybe a bit more).
So the rides I think are fun are off the chart. And I’m not good enough to ride them at a 20 mph average. Maybe set my sights lower?
And miss something like the Heartbreak Hundred? Are you high?
Every now and then you hook up with exactly the right wheel. Some angels wear lycra.
It’s easy to look at the course profile and imaging that because the sustained climbing is finished, the shorter climbs ought to be easy enough to tackle, right? That might be true if you weren’t above 5000 feet of elevation. It’s the rare rider who can hit those at full gas.
Amazingly, when you top the final climb at roughly mile 88, you have an unbroken descent the final 12 miles to the finish. Ride judiciously and you might pick up some riders to form a group. Between guys who caught me and other guys we caught (and dropped) I rode with a quartet back to the finish. Quick, powerful turns kept our speed easily above 30 mph.
It’s impossible to know how close you are to the top of the climb.
No matter how badly the last climb goes, a fast finish can cure all ills, can’t it?
Amazingly, the ride had fewer than 500 participants. For a ride with a course this good, this devoid of traffic (I could have counted the cars and not lost track) and perfectly supported, not to mention the RFID timing system I don’t see how every century-prone cyclist within two hours of Lebec didn’t do the ride. I don’t think any part of LA was more than two hours from the start, so that should have been thousands.
When I walked into registration I could see my time on a monitor. No wait.
One of these days I’m going to get all the details right and hit Heartbreak Hill full gas. I can’t wait.
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.