I consider it one of the more endearing achievements of my host country (in which I have been a guest worker or in more official terms a "non-immigrant alien" for nearly 19 years now) that it elevated the commemoration of a historical harvest celebration not only to a feast of over-eating, but also to an appeal to be generally grateful: Grateful for the obvious and important things in our lives, as well as the not so obvious and less important ones.
Don't ask into which category it falls, but I know I am grateful for the Low Key Hillclimbs series, which - fittingly - culminates in a traditional "Turkey Ride" on the morning of Thanksgiving Day. Fourteen years after its inception I am one of only a few "Alumni Riders" who are still around, even though the late season double-centuries (and the occasional not-bicycling-related conflicts) get in the way of participating more regularly. Still I could show up for four out of nine hill climbs this year - and I am grateful for it.
Those who have seen me struggle uphill over the last years (sometimes pushing the bike despite mountain-bike gearing) probably don't believe it when I say that I like climbing on my bike. But I do; and there was a time when I was actually pretty good at it: 45 years ago I won the Hill Climbing Championship of Lower Bavaria in 13:08 minutes for a 1000 ft climb over 3.1 miles! (It is true that I weighed then more than 20 pounds less than today). And while the flesh has become weak, the mind is still willing.
On the Saturday morning between the two "desert doubles" in Death Valley and Borrego Springs I started my LKHC participation this year with the Montevina climb:
In the background: Silicon Valley!
I felt highly motivated and performed quite well on this route which I had never discovered before. The atmospheric conditions were pleasant and the views georgeous:
Proudly wearing my Gold Rush jersey, I gave it all at the 14% stretch towards the end to finish in 35:12 minutes, which placed me 106th out of 129 - not too shabby, given that many of the participants were true racer types.
I was very much looking forward to the Mount Diablo climb, two weeks later. I hadn't been there for several years, and had never ridden up the northern route from Walnut Creek. The longer distance of nearly eleven miles and 3300 ft of elevation gain should suit me even better. The patience of the 137 participants was a little stretched when we had to wait until being sent off in individual time trial format. I should have anticipated that there was a long time between my breakfast and the start, and brought some stuff to refuel. I also didn't drink enough - always a risk when temperatures are low. As a result, I found my legs being threatened by cramps on the last miles and had to slow down in disappointment, which is reflected in the following picture taken at the steep ramp just before the finish line:
With my time of 87:54 minutes, I ranked 118th out of 137 and clearly missed my goal of staying at least in the same percentile as on Montevina. But in thinking about it a little later, I was satisfied nevertheless, because we were so lucky again with the weather - and because I really like climbing, no matter what!
One week later, on November 21, Alba Road was on the schedule. I remembered vaguely that I had come downhill on that road once in the early '90s, and that I was truly impressed. It climbs 2000 ft rather irregularly through redwoods in barely 3.5 miles, with the first half mile at a sustained 17% grade:
I have no good excuse, but I didn't do as well as I had hoped. I averaged only 5.1 mph (44 minutes), which put me at rank 73 out of 82. On the brighter side, the workout was intense enough for a good off-season training, and I got another nice picture from the Illumix photographer:
The final "Turkey Ride" up to Mount Hamilton, with 18.5 miles (this includes two downhill sections) and over 4300 ft total elevation gain the longest climb in the area, came only five days later. I have climbed it many times since 1992, but it would be the first time this year. My best time from 1993 is around 1h45; but nowadays, I am elated each time I can break the 2 hour limit - which happened only once in the last ten years. Of course, my goal was to finish in 1h59 or better!
Just as before the Mount Diablo climb, I believed again that the longer distance and the shallower grades would be more favorable to my disposition; and similarly, I made the same mistake again; no, I made it even worse: I completely ignored that for a two-hour climb I needed more than a single partially filled bottle with pure water and nothing else, nothing! While I am typing this, I am still terribly embarrassed. What was I thinking? Well - nothing. That's not good for somebody who wants to become a randonneur ...
170 starters, plus lots of other cyclists who came out on this marvelous day independently for their traditional big climb, made us feel like owning the road up to the Lick Observatory. I kept an eye on my stopwatch and paced myself successfully for a 2-hour finish (as I said, I do have enough experience on this climb). Paced myself successfully, yes - but only until about four miles from the finish. And then I bonked, and my legs cramped. Silly me! I crawled in my smallest gear and lost about 20 minutes on those last miles. I still didn't finish last, but I was so slow that the photographers had stopped taking pictures. Except the one at the finish line:
Smiling, but in embarrassment!
So, now I have unfinished business with this LKHC series, more particularly with the Mount Diablo and the Mount Hamilton climbs. I will have to do them again as soon as possible (and the latter one more than once). But regardless of how fast or slow I am: in a year from now, I will be grateful again for living in an area where such wonderful initiatives like the LKHC are being offered, and where I can at least get the illusion of how it felt when I was "a pretty good climber."