The Divine Comedy

“I felt for the tormented whirlwinds
Damned for their carnal sins
Committed when they let their passions rule their reason.”  
– Dante Alighieri

I did some climbing on one of my local San Diego County hills, Palomar Mountain, yesterday – up one side on dirt then down the other on twisty pavement.  Actually it’s a LOT of climbing at 4800 vertical feet for the major 11 mile climb of Nate Harrison Grade alone, with a few more ramps thrown in for good measure.  I’m not sure why I like to climb as I’m definitely not built for it as a 200+ pounder, but I’ve always gained satisfaction from completing a circuit such as this and yesterday was no different.  In fact, this makes 4 weekends in a row that I’ve climbed Palomar in some shape or form – power to weight ratio be damned.  For me climbing mountains is about more than just going fast, it’s about dreaming big.

Palomar is definitely big.  Though it may not be extremely tall it is a massive hulk of a mountain topping out at just over 6100ft.  With many angles of attack and roads snaking toward her sprawling summits from all points of the compass (2 dirt and 2 paved), it’s a place of endless variety and one with which I never grow bored.  Four weeks ago I ascended the most famous of the routes, South Grade Road (known for its inclusion in the Tour of California a few years back as well as being the road on which the telescope for the famous summit observatory was hauled) on the road bike.  I then headed across the spine of the mountain and descended East Grade before turning around and heading back up to the summit for a spin back down the hairpin corners of South Grade.  It was a nice reintroduction to the art of the climb, something that has been lacking in my training as of late.

My torturously slow ascents give me great appreciation for the unseen hand of gravity and I always fully exploit it when the tables turn with a breakneck descent even though I’d much rather remain in the cool heavens of the higher elevations.  The heat of the lower levels can be a bit of a shock to the system, especially when you’re talking about close to a vertical mile of elevation loss.  Of course if you think that there’s any cyclist alive that likes to go slow, boy do I have a great investment scheme I’d love for you to go in on with me – just email me your bank account information and I’ll get you started on the fast track to financial independence.  Hmm… although that does sound suspiciously like the bargain I make with myself every time I attempt to climb a mountain at my slow pace. 

Anyway, there’s a good reason why the South side of the mountain swarms with motorcycles every weekend afternoon (especially kneedragging sportbikers) as it’s an absolute blast of a road with smooth asphalt and high speed sweepers along with a few tighter decreasing radius turns thrown in for good measure.  With all of the motorcycles whizzing by seeking their own personal adrenaline rush it’s easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm on your bike and find yourself leaned over at 35-40 mph, attacking the corners like Il_Falco.  The focus required to go fast and smooth comes with the added bonus of making it easier to ignore the bits and pieces of splintered bodywork that are strewn along the shoulder of the road from the inevitable motorcycle crashes that occur all the time on the mountain.  Fortune favors the bold!

I’ve been scheming about stringing together a big ride that involves all of the available climbs, so in preparation I fitted up some skinnier Schwalbe Marathon XR tires on my Salsa Fargo and headed out planning a road/pavement adventure up Nate Harrison and down South Grade.  With more asphalt than dirt I will need some tires that roll better on the roads yet can handle the soft sand patches that exist on the desert side of Palomar when the time comes to try the big ride, so this was a test ride of sorts.  These tires have been sitting around since my ride up the Dempster a few years ago and I know they work well in these conditions. With many miles beneath their treads (though still remarkably unworn), they’re like a comfortable pair of shoes.

Despite the aforementioned handicap of being built more like a linebacker than a gymnast, the idea of a ride like this speaks volumes to me even if it is completely out of my element. It will be a grand traverse of a mountain that I can see off in the distance every day as I head to work and a source of a smile whenever I recall the rich piney scent in the clear air of the forest that inhabits the highest reaches of her slopes.  When it’s foggy down in the flat of the coastal plains, I know that oftentimes the summit of Palomar is bathed in sunlight above the clouds. A few times each winter snowfall drapes her slopes and I watch from my home over 40 miles away as it shimmers in the setting sun like a mirage.  The mountain is a physical manifestation of a dream, a hulking mass of earth on the bucket list of a cyclist that climbs like a stone – a reason to find hope on the way to work on a Monday morning.

The ride setup worked well and the morning went almost as well as I had planned.  I left my car strategically placed beside the road as a refueling point for later in the ride and rode off into the predawn.  As usual my climb of Harrison Grade was somewhat glacial (though I am starting to feel better on the long grinding climb as I should after 4 consecutive weeks of doing this!) but the tires stuck like glue on the descent of South Grade.  As an added bonus, the disc brakes on the Fargo had me diving deeper into corners than on my roadie – a must for a big guy like me on such a fast road! 

Grinning like a fool after finishing the screaming descent I returned to my car and leaned my bike up against the bumper while preparing to refill my water bottles for another ascent of South Grade.  Why not? The day was still young and I felt great.  The brake discs ticked as they cooled and I laughed out loud at the fun I had just had using gravity to my advantage for once – take that Newtonian physics!  How do you like it when I have you working on my side? Ha! 

As if in response to my dig at the gods of Gravity, a shot rang out like the backfire of a car.  My “comfortable old shoe” of a front tire that has seen me through thousands of troublefree miles had inexplicably blown off the rim and the tube had exploded in shards, scaring the crap out of me.  Wiping the smile from my face like dusk from day, I fought to avoid thinking about what would have happened if that tire had blown somewhere along that high speed descent.  The memory of all the wreckage from the motorcycle crashes strewn along the side of the ride popped to the forefront of my consciousness and suddenly I didn’t feel like doing any more riding.  I packed my gear and headed home.

Fortune favors the bold, indeed.  I’m pretty sure I’ll find another ride to do next weekend as I don’t want to get burned out on Palomar by riding it too often, but I know for certain I will be back for an attempt at the Grand Traverse – unfavorable power to weight ratio be damned.

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