Growing up in California, my family would go camping in various parts of the state every summer. We had a few regular favorite spots: north of Truckee in the Tahoe National Forest. Near Mt. Shasta and Lower Twin Lakes, south of Bridgeport. I distinctly remember as a teenager riding in the back of my dad’s 3/4 ton truck that had a minimal shell (with only plywood platform bunks), going up Sonora pass that was incredibly steep in places and seemed to go on and on. That memory still lingers in my mind. Like most teenagers as I got older, I became less interested in camping, especially with my parents. But they continued to return to Twin Lakes in the fall—while I stayed with my grandmother.
Over the years, I’d forgotten about Sonora pass, but in the last ten years, after my own two sons had grown up, I'd gotten back into cycling and started to camp again more as well. In the last few years I explored parts of the Sierras in areas I hadn’t been to before, like the Markleeville area—camping at Grover Hot Springs park, a spectacular campground about 30 miles south of Lake Tahoe. This is close to some very popular mountain passes such as Monitor pass on Highway 89 and Ebbetts pass on Highway 4 among others. Last June my girlfriend and I camped at Grover, brought bikes and did a few rides in the area including Monitor Pass, Ebbetts Pass and Blue Lakes road. We went in early June, before the droves of cyclists arrive in July preparing for the annual Tour of the California Alps, also known as the “Death Ride”.
Anyone who is remotely interested in traditional cycling as a sport can appreciate the early race heroes and legendary climbs of European grand tours in races like the Tour de France, The Giro D’Italia, the Tour of Switzerland and La Vuelta a España. This year marked the 100th anniversary of the introduction of the Pyrenées stages in the Tour de France, so it’s no coincidence that mountain passes can beckon current cyclists, no matter what caliber, myself included.
At 9,620 ft, Sonora pass is the second highest highway pass in California, next to Tioga pass by about 350ft. It's one of the steeper passes in the Sierras and where it's situated is less traveled than other Sierra passes that have attained more popularity due to an almost cult-level status of annual major group ride events (that help their local economy in a good way).
Last June, after camping in Markeleeville and driving back over Sonora pass, riding this pass by bicycle was on my mind for some time. Taking two days off from my work, I decided to ride Sonora pass right after Labor day weekend to avoid the crowds after the weekend that traditionally signals the end of the summer season. On September 6, Labor day, I left late in the day, drove to Strawberry in the foothills just above Pinecrest and stayed at the Strawberry Inn.
The next morning was clear and beautiful. I debated driving the 20 miles up to Dardanelle near the base of the where the pass starts, or riding from Strawberry. I decided to ride from Strawberry to get some miles in before the climb and take in the environment.
I rode a 56cm Ebisu All-Purpose bicycle that I set up with one of their custom small front racks, and geared with a Sugino compact double crankset with 48 and 33 TA Specialités Alize chainrings in front and a 9-speed 12-34 Shimano XTR titanium cassette in the back. The Ebisu weight as set-up with the steel custom short front rack and Panaracer Pasela TG 700x32 tires: just over 23 lbs.
The Ebisu is a touring style bike with room for fenders and has cantilever brakes. It’s designed in a way that handles completely neutral even with a loaded bag on a front rack, you never feel as though you are having to fight the bike as you’re riding like you do with a bike not designed for riding with a front load. Based on an illustration in a French VAR (tool/accessory) catalog, I made a simple decaleur support for my handlebar bag from a piece of aluminum round that loops over the bars and then tied the front of the bag to the rack with nylon cord. This worked great and the bag didn't shift at all during the ride.
Here's what I brought: (about 9.5 lbs. including the handlebar bag)
Fleece jacket (in stuff sack strapped to seat)
Cliff bars + 3 Gels (not pictured)
Berthoud GB2286 handlebar bag
2 mini stretch cords
4 spare 700x32 tubes
Razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, sun screen, first aid, etc.
Lightweight button-up shirt
Gore Tex ultralight rain shell
Spare folding tire (Grand Bois Cypres)
Archival Clothing waxed cotton musette
Olympus XA 35mm, Nikon digital camera
2 large water bottles (really needed 4)
Patagonia lightweight pants
Pearl Izumi insulated long tights
Puma Klim rock climbing shoes
Woolywear merino LS wool top
Garmin Edge 205 GPS
1 pair wool socks
1 pair boxer briefs
Tool bag (strapped to seatpost w/2 tubes)
Cel phone (not pictured)
Photos from the ride.
Tuesday, after breakfast of oatmeal and coffee at the Strawberry Inn, my ride got off to a pretty good but relatively late start at 8:45 am. The rush of the sun filtering through the pine trees, the clean air combined with the beautiful forested road made me excited for the ride ahead. But at 5,000 feet I could already feel the altitude. I used plain water the first day and realized only later that , combined with the altitude and the heat, I would go through more water than expected. Hwy 108 from Strawberry is a long gradual climb with a few descents then climbing gradually upward up to Dardanelle where the ups and downs become more prominent while following the middle fork of the Stanislaus river. Near Kennedy Meadow you enter a rocky corridor and a meadow where horseback riding is popular.
I stopped at Dardanelle cabin resort only to find a for sale sign in front and the store apparently closed. Flags were posted in front along with a banner stating “Celebrate Labor Day Weekend with us”. A woman inside the store confirmed they were closed. The Dardanelle resort seems like a step back in time with it’s green painted cabins, of a time, when resorts like this made the mountains more accessible. As I rode away, I thought about how it's probably harder for traditional cabin resorts like this to stay viable, now that most anyone can drive into campsites nearby with RVs, with most of all the comforts of home. Fortunately I’d brought energy bars and gels, not exactly what I’d prefer for lunch, but ok.
On the way up to Dardanelle I could see the elevation gaining on the GPS. At 6000ft the pavement got better it seemed like I was hovering around 7,000ft for a while then, to my surprise a sudden drop after Dardenelle and having to back up again, but this time, much steeper. Around 4 miles into the climb it gets really steep, like your standing up and going ok, this is really going up. I used to ride in the east bay in Oakland and a favorite local steep climb was going up Elverton road to Grizzly peak boulevard. When it got really steep, we would traverse back and forth across the fall line. I hadn’t done this in years, but the memory came back at once and I relied on this trick towards the top of the the first big steep (while keeping an eye and ear out for cars as I crossed the road dividing line) that ends up going through this narrow portal of tall igneous looking rocks on either side of the road.
Just Beyond where the road bends left is a lookout that over looks the valley. The rock portal is like a welcome gate to what’s in store. The road climbs further and starts to wind more and gets steeper and steeper. About the point you get to Chipmunk flat it seems to level off a bit on the left is a sheer rock wall and a meadow to the right is the Stainslaus it’s unbelievably gorgeous. Then the road ascends up an towering canyon. You truly feel like an ant next to the steep mountain wall to that bowls around you on the right as you go up, around the point where there is a guardrail next to the river I had to stop. After riding about 27 miles, I had already gone through a bottle and a half of water. While I was stopped a European couple coming down the the pass in a rental car with Colorado plates slowed and warned me that it was really steep (YES!) and are you ok, need anything? First I said I’m ok, then realizing I only had half a bottle left, said, yes, do you have any water? They obliged and handed me two *ice cold* bottles of water. they were Danish, I thanked them profusely and they wished me well. Recharged, I climbed on.
A while back I had looked for profiles of the pass, I found some online indicating the grades, but they were really crude. So based on the data I redrew these. as a result the image of the profile of the pass in my mind I remembered more and I knew, ok, here’s the first really steep part and was able to mentally prepare for the really steep section further up. Climbing and doing longer rides I would learn is a kind of mindset you do really have to psych yourself of for it. For me doing the profiles, helped a bit.
In the steepest part of the upper section of the climb where I’d stopped, despite the clear sunny weather, there were sudden intense gusts of wind on the way up in some places this happened as well where you couldn’t quite tell whether it was a car coming or just the wind. In other places there wasn’t a sound, it’s so peaceful.
Once past the steeps it levels off somewhat in a fantastic section along the river with green all around wind blowing the aspen trees with leaves shimmering in the breeze as the sun reflects off them in the wind. Gradually the climb rises making it’s way to the summit. The summit isn’t nearly as dramatic as the climb going up but there a great view and of course there are the signs marking the summit that everyone stands next to to make a photo.
When I arrived at the summit, a guy had parked an SUV almost in front of the sign on the left of the road. We talked for a bit, he'd gone running along the summit. He offered to make a photo with my camera and I obliged. My digital has this habit of cutting out after a few seconds to save power, which is what happened when he made the photo. I was so into the moment being there, I didn’t event think to check the shot he’d made. I had a ways to go and was on my way—not thinking about that photo, only later would I find out to my disappointment.
Going down the east side I immediately noticed how fast I was going, at first I thought maybe it’s the thin air, but it was most likely a tailwind. The rolling terrain of the east side is extremely fun to descend. At one point there is a switchback with an absolutely breathtaking view of Leavitt meadow surrounded by mountains. This made my jaw drop when I saw this earlier in the summer and and it was equally memorable on this day, especially when riding a bicycle to get there. When you ride far you definitely are able to connect more the surroundings and the environment—you're able to hear things more easily you can’t when you’re in a car: birds, insects, trees in the wind, the wind itself and the lack of sounds besides yopur own breathing when it can be so peacefully quiet in places. It can definitely be mesmerizing.
Once dropping into the valley the road loops up and down passing a pack horse facility and the Leavitt meadow campground, finally leveling off, the road extends for a long while passing the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare training center on the northern edge of the of the meadow, as the road extends to a wider open terrain. 4 miles further I reached the junction at Hwy 395 where I turned right heading south to Bishop. I was really starting to feel the effects of the climb, the altitude and the distance now. Worse, I was running out of water. I had a Clif bar and started the grade towards Devils gate on a busy highway with semi trucks and not much shoulder. Throughout the ride I kept an eye on the road looking for glass to avoid. While stopping I would check my tires or if I started hearing a clicking sound while riding I would stop and check. One time I did find a small piece of glass lodged in the tire. It never hurts to check and in this case this bit of glass never went through and I removed it before it became a potential problem.
After riding 50 miles with another 17 to go I was starting to feel it after the hard climb. This is where you have to knuckle down on the mindset thing, you realize this is really a remote area: “ok, this is now going to be harder”. On the grade to Devil’s gate, I noticed a house that seemed to situated in the middle of nowhere on the left hillside close to the road. Two men where standing in front of a truck talking. OK, water might make this easier so I dismounted walked up the gravel driveway and asked. When I talked my voice sounded different, a little parched. Jim the homeowner obliged by filling my two bottles and was completely cool, surprised I’d ridden so far. I was soon on my way again and now was feeling a lot better. Once over the Devil’s Gate summit (not much of a summit as the overall grade isn’t actually that much elevation gain) the road started to descend a bit and I was able to gain some speed the wind was picking up as well though and kept my hands clenched on the drops negotiating a very narrow shoulder in some sections, in others there was a recently paved wide shoulder but separated from the road my a kind of machined section about 10 inches wide with curved successive chunks taken out of the strip creating a very bumpy ride if you ride on this. I was frequently negotiating riding on the wide shoulder that had fresh patches of tar in places and riding on the narrower margin along the white line that was closer to traffic where I didn’t want to be.
The expanse of this remote area is amazing with huge rock formations appearing in places seemingly out of nowhere. I saw a monument along the road commemorating John Fremont who had taken this route in the early days, I saw sheep grazing across the road in an immense valley in the late afternoon sun. I kept looking at my GPS that I’d set to have the distance as the largest number on the display and this was very helpful, I really wanted to get to Bridgeport 12 miles to go 8 miles then at about 6 miles I could see the town in the distance, but it looked way left. It turns out the road veered sharply to the left as it did wind now behind me I was going faster. The GPS indicated the batteries were almost out, I raced to try to get to Bridgeport before the batteries died. At about 5:15, over 7 hours after I started, I rolled in to Bridgeport... and ready to eat something other than energy bars and dried fruit!
After a block or so, I arrived at the Bridgeport Inn. I put my bike on the porch and checked in. It's a vintage building with a restaurant, bar and a victorian style living room with a wood burning stove on one side, a PC in one corner of the room seemed out of place, but an available modern convenience. There was a newer ground level motel structure with many units in the parking lot behind the original building where my room was. When they asked for my car license plate it was nice to say "no car".
Once I got in the room, I took a shower, changed into the lightweight regular clothes I brought and walked around to check-out the area. Bridgeport isn't a large place, a city hall, a few motels gas stations, restaurants and other local businesses, plus one general store. Cel phone service didn't seem available, initially from my room but later I found service out in the parking lot. I used the Bridgeport Inn's (grindingly slow) PC/internet connection to email my girlfriend and son's that I'd made it ok and to check the weather for wednesday. It said it there was a 20% chance of rain.
I realized that while I'd brought a rain shell and plenty of layers, I didn't have a knit hat or cold weather gloves and that this might be a problem if the weather got sketchy. I went to the general store and stocked up on sports drink and energy bars for the next day, then stopped by the sporting goods shop next door and bought a knit hat and tried to find some fleece gloves. Being a shop catering to fisherman, all of the fleece gloves had no fingers! I found some wool gloves that would be better than my regular bike gloves. Now more prepared for tomorrow's ride, I had dinner at Rhino's restaurant nearby, a pub style place and had a steak, a salad and a beer—a little more informal that the Bridgeport Inn's quaint restaurant setting. Feeling pretty good from the day's ride, I got back to my room. The TV news was saying possible light snow in Reno, the wind outside was picking up. This might be interesting on the way back
I went to bed around 9:30 that night I was a little restless. About 15 minutes after I turned the light out, I heard a loud squeal of running water. Guests in an adjacent motel room were taking a shower. This was really loud. Then a second time for another person! I finally fell asleep.
Day 2: The Ride Back
I woke up very early wednesday morning while it was still dark, maybe it was my anticipation. I couldn't completely pack-up the night before because I'll still needed to walk around in the morning and needed to pack-up my walking shoes last, but I was pretty much set. I looked outside into the dark sky and a few trees nearby were whipping in the wind. The guy in the sports shop said the day before it was mostly just in Bridgeport where it got really windy. At 7a.m. the Bridgeport Inn restaurant wasn't open for breakfast and there was no sign it was opening anytime soon. An older guy behind the building sat in a chair looking at a Netbook, he was motel guest visiting from Pennsylvania with some friends and using the motel wi-fi connection. I asked if he could check the weather report. It still looked ok, but a small chance of rain.
I wanted to get on the road soon, but wanted breakfast first. The local Sportman's Bar & Grill opened for breakfast at 7am so I had breakfast there. Two eggs that came with a large slab of potato pancake, whole wheat toast dowsed in butter and pretty terrible coffee. But, I ate most of it, besides the buttered toast and got back to my room to get my stuff together and get on the road. I had an unusual feeling of being self contained on a bike so far away from where I started, totally different than being in a car. It felt great.
When I left at 8:00am, the motel office still wasn't open, I left the key in the room and set off. The sun had come out and cast a beautiful bright light and long shadows against the vast area around Bridgeport. To the west and southwest, there the mountains I saw while riding in the day before, but this time they were topped by somewhat ominous clouds. Once I got on the road the wind didn't seem that prominent. Hwy 395 wasn't busy at all that was welcome because the shoulder varied in width quite a bit. From either no shoulder, having to ride along a maybe 12" margin along the white line that defines the road edge to about a 7ft wide sections recently paved to the right of the highway. I welcomed this, until I saw a sign that said "Passing lane ends in 1/2 mile". It sure didn't seem wide enough for a slow traffic lane. A semi-truck blasted his horn at me at one point while crossing over the divider line to pass me, even though I could clearly hear the truck approaching behind me and wasn't in his lane. Annoying. One other time while I'd stopped briefly near the road line edge, another large truck passed very close that shook me up a bit. But the morning light and the fantastic valley scenery made up for all of this. This is truly beautiful country.
Heading north, about 10 miles above of Bridgeport I saw a flock of sheep grazing in a valley to the right, maybe the same I saw the day before, but this time, there was a sheepherder near the road. I stopped and had a brief conversation in Spanish. His name was Hilario and he was from Peru. I asked him how many sheep he had?700. How far he would walk them? 5 miles within the valley. And how many dogs? Only 3! I told him how far I'd ridden and he was surprised. He wished me well.
I was a little tired from the day before but not sore and still felt pretty good. I got uncomfortable a few times before, it seemed like certain combinations of flat terrain and gearing with less load or some wind, where I felt uncomforable in the saddle, especially when bonking, when low on water. Then this would go away once I was in gearing where I was applying more pedal force or and/or the terrain (and not to mention energy bars/fruit and water). After long rides I find my feet can swell up so I've learned to loosen up my bike shoe straps a little when they get uncomfortable and then tighten as needed when I need more foot support for a climb.
As I rode on, the sun got warmer, though it wasn't even 10:00 am. It was about 6,500 ft. elevation. It was nice having the GPS on the ride out to keep track of the distance as well as elevation, but a simple cycling computer for keeping track of distance would be fine have better battery life. There were a few clouds in the east that at times obscured the morning sun and then the conditions would change quickly cooling off with ocassional blasts of wind. By the time I got to Devil's Gate summit, the top of the slight rise in the road along 395 towards the junction at 108, I had to stop and put on a a knit hat and a windbreaker shell because it was definitely colder, even with a wool longsleeve top and wool shortsleeve jersey I was wearing. Once over the grade I passed the house where I'd gotten water the afternoon before (thanks Jim) and was happy at the descent to Hwy 108, but I wasn't able to that fast even downhill because of a headwind.
I made the left at Hwy 108 and entered the valley towards Leavitt meadow, the sun was out, but now it was really windy. I passed the Marine Warfare training base again and finally made it to the trees and the wind subsided. Now it was time for the climb. The road rolls through some low hills before passing a horse pack station and then winds around and starts to ascend.
Conditions kept changing—it would be warm one moment and then really cold the next with wind. Sometime while climbing at altitude, I found myself simultaneously being too warm (overdressed with the rain shell) and being cold (wind) at the same time that was really strange. There were dark clouds in the mountains to the west, but it didn't look like rain. The road got very steep and I passed the switchback where I'd stopped the day before. I could feel a few drops of rain. Here goes, I thought.
I got past half way up on the climb of the eastern side of the pass when it got much colder and windier. I stopped and pulled out the fleece jacket, these are not ideal because you usually end up getting hot when riding while these are under a shell. I was still cold though with this jacket underneath and my long tights were getting wet. A few cars had passed me but not many. I was starting to have my doubts about the conditions. I had 35 miles to go after the summit and I wasn't at there yet. After another mile or so I took a break, I was getting uneasy, because of the cold, the rain combined with the wind. As much as I wanted to finish the climb of the eastern side of the pass decided I was probably safer to try to get a ride. I put my thumb out when I saw truck or van, a few went by who didn't stop. Then three campers in a light truck did stop and gave me a ride about 5-6 miles to the summit (thanks Scott!). By the time we got to the summit in was colder and the rain had turned to snow, but not sticking to the road. At the top, I thanked them and we exchange goodbyes and I gingerly made my way down the west side of the pass amidst snowflakes.
Going down the west side in wet conditions was hair-raising, in some places you feel like gravity is pulling you straight down the mountain and you're hanging by the threads of your brake cables. I pumped my brake levers to keep the pads from fading. I'd checked my cantilever brakes thoroughly before I left and I was glad that I did on the way down this side of the pass. The bike did great, but my fingers were totally numb from the the plain wool gloves and the cold making difficult to grip the levers for extended lengths of time. Around 7,500 feet the rain let up and the road dried out. I stopped again at the golden stairs rock portal and de-numbed myself in the sun that had come out from the clouds momentarily. The sidewalls of my Panaracer gumwall tires were blackened by brake residue combined and the rain. After recharging with fluids and getting the circulation back in my hands, I continued. My long tights were wet, but I wasn't as cold anymore and it was pretty much a good ride past Dardanelle and further south.
At the 26% grade sign I stopped and talked to a group of about six cyclists on newer race bikes who were on there way up. I mentioned the conditions and we had a nice chat. One guy had seen me the day before and I remember him waving to me while I was stopped at the rock portal while he drove by. One guy in the group was dressed in a short sleeve acrylic jersey and shorts and had no jacket. This was crazy. He was going to freeze. Some were going to Bridgeport. These were the only cyclists I saw both days that I rode.
Back on 108 I rode the final 30 miles dropping into fog around 6500 feet along the forested highway, the road would occasionally dip and then would climb long slow grades.You get to where you really want to be going downhill again and it keeps going up. It forces you to forge ahead. By the time I knew I was close to the finish back to Strawberry I was pushing hard, trying to break 7 hours, a slow time for this distance, even with the ride I got, but with the wind and carrying 9.5 pounds of gear. I would have a time to mark myself against next time. I rolled into Strawberry about 3:05 p.m. I was tired, but not sore.
This was a fantastic ride that if I thought too much about beforehand, probably would not have tried. I learned a few things in the process:
Pacing yourself is good. My legs never cramped on the climbs.
Bring more water (or better yet sports drink)!!! I diluted sports drink 1:2 on the way back and it worked well.
Riding solo, if the wind comes up, you have no one to share the work with.
Always be prepared for adverse conditions in the Sierras (that can change quickly).
A few more things I would bring next time:
• Cold weather/rainproof gloves
• Knit cap
• Waterproof helmet cover (also good in wind)
• Rain pants
• Rainproof shoe covers
• 1pr wool long underwear
• Cycle computer rather than a GPS. Shows distance, speed etc. and has more battery life.