L’Etape du Tour of California: the Mt. Baldy Stage

| May 9, 2011 7:18 am

by Mark Pryor

This story starts back on Tuesday, when I went to the garage to load up my trusty old Trek 5200 for the trip–Janet and I were spending a couple of days before the ride in Palm Springs, and we drove down Tuesday morning. Luckily, I was testing things out with the bike before tossing it in the back of my truck when I noticed a loose spoke on the rear wheel!  Crap, riding it up and down Highway 9 on the Argonaut Ride the night before must have messed up the wheel so now I am presented with my Batch O’ Bad Luck #1: what to do bike-wise for the Mt. Baldy ride?????

I have been doing my training largely on the 5200 rather than the Madone, as I have the XT set-up on the 5200 with the 11 X 34 cassette (versus an IRD 11 X 30 cassette on the Madone) and we’ve been climbing MoFos like Sierra and the backside of Hammie lately, so I really wanted the Bail-out Gearing on the 5200.  So, one option would be to bring the 5200 and have a bike shop in Palm Springs fix the rear wheel…BUT, I had also changed out my long-of-tooth Terry Zero saddle on the 5200 to a Fizik Aliente and I still was fiddling with the position of the saddle   OR, I could take my Madone with the higher gearing and not have to worry about things…what do I do, what DO I do?

So, I make the snap decision with the new saddle worries weighing heavier than the higher gearing to snatch the Madone off the rack and loading it up.  I fully intended to get a ride or two in around Palm Springs, but I sat around on my butt and didn’t do a damn thing but relax in Palm Springs from Tuesday through Friday when we headed up to Claremont for the Friday check-in and briefing.  I ran in to Steve and BrianB at the Doubletree briefing, and we agreed to meet at 6:45am in the Doubletree parking lot to ride to the start together.

We three rode down to the start–the organizers said they had 1,450 riders–and we quickly found Warren and Dan in the crowd, then Jon D showed up tricked out head to toe in a Michigan Wolverine team kit.  We set off in the Third Wave at about 7:15, but Brian got held back by a course marshal when he picked Brian to start Wave Four, so I hung back of my pack to allow Brian to catch up–but he never did, saying they held them back for about 10 minutes before he left.  I hung back until we cleared the ‘burbs and started climbing Mt. Baldy Road proper and I decided to settle in and start climbing, figuring Brian would catch me somewhere on that first 12 mile climb.

The first climb wasn’t bad…long stretches of 4 – 6% gradient with some kick-ups to 10% here and there, and I caught Dan on the first of the short grades. I figured it would take me about an hour-twenty to get to Mt. Baldy Village, and I guessed right on the nose…I passed the first rest stop at 1:19 in to the ride, opting to skip it as I still had a full bottle and it was all down hill to the second rest stop.  I had a nice descent, but I noticed a bit of shimmy in the Madone, and as I pulled in to the SRAM guy at Rest Stop #2, I spun my wheel and sure-as-shit, my rear wheel was way out of whack…dammit, another loose spoke (not broken), Batch O’ Bad Luck #2 and I’m only 25 miles in to the ride.  The SRAM guy tells me he doesn’t have a spoke wrench, so he takes some needle-nose pliers and a crescent wrench and gamely tries to tighten the spoke.  By now, I have been stopped for 15 minutes, sweating bullets…then the SRAM guy announces, “hey, you’ve got a couple of loose spokes!”  Double and triple CRAP!!!

Then the SRAM guy announces, “hey, we have some wheels!” and runs back to his truck and pops on a ZIPP 404 on the rear of my Madone!!!  A friggin’ ZIPP 404!  BUT, I look at the cassette and we come to Batch O’ Bad Luck #3, the low gear is a 25!!  So, I go from a 34 tooth low gear which was my original intent on my 5200, to a 30 on my Madone, NOW TO A FRIGGIN’ 25!!!  I said to the SRAM guy, “How the hell am I going to climb to Mt. Baldy Ski Station with a 25 low gear?!?!?!”  His retort is one for the ages, “If you make it, it will give you bragging rights!”

I look closely at the wheel, and see it needs a super-duper long stem tube, so I think to myself, I better not flat on this bad boy…and, the Friday briefing the organizers said that CalTrans was going to sweep the course but to be careful for rocks in the road anyway.  Which turned out to be propitious…

About 10 minutes in to my stop, I see Brian zip through the stop (it was another long descent in to Rest Stop #3 and most of the gang decided to skip the first two)…I called out to him, but he just kept going.  And at about 30 minutes in to my stop, Dan rolls up, but by this time, I am steamed and dropping rapid fire F-bombs to myself much like Colin Firth was doing in “the King’s Speech” so I take off with my Zipp wheel worried like hell about how I was going to climb something as ugly as Sierra and the backside of Hammie with such a high-geared bike.

The descent from Rest Stop #2 was steep and technical, and I fell in line with a group of three smoothly carving the turns, keeping about 5 meters between us when about 3 miles in to this gas of a descent the guy two riders in front of me hits a good sized rock and pinch flats, and I make a snap decision in that instant to take a line right of him where the guy in front of me takes a left line and sure-as-shit, I get to Batch O’ Bad Luck #4, the rock kicks in to my line and WHAM, I hit it and pinch flat immediately on the front.  I slowed under control and pulled off to a sunny pullout on the steep road, and I then find out Batch O’ Bad Luck #5, the rock put a NASTY GASH in the sidewall clean through to the tube…this was no ordinary pinch flat…now I am 28 miles in to a 100 miler, and my front GP4000 is badly gashed.  More self-talk F-bombs…NOW WHAT?!?!?!?

I pull my seat bag out and I have a nice large Park adhesive boot (from some other give-away at some other Century) and I boot the sucker, and shoot it full of CO2 and it seemed to hold and not bulge out, but at that point I figured I had used up more than my share of cycling karma for one ride and I was seriously considering bagging the ride.  I could descend all the way to Glendora and head back east on the flats back to Claremont and just call it a day…

From my pinch flat point, there was about 5 more miles of technical descent, then you ride along a reservoir in to a stiff headwind down to Glendora.  I took it easy on the descent, stopping a couple of times to make sure the boot was holding, then when I hit the flats, I hooked up with a group of three other big guys (one guy sporting a Seattle jersey) and we formed a FAST paceline hammering the flats around the lake while single riders struggled against the nasty headwinds (blowing that hard that early in the day).  We four hammered fast and hard in to the next rest stop in Glendora, when I caught up to Dan again.  He must have passed me when I was fixing my flat, and we took off together along the rollers in the ‘burbs leading up to the Glendora Mountain Road climb.  I started out on the climb and I got to Batch O’ Bad Luck #6: I couldn’t get in to my low gear!  As the climb stiffened, I shifted in to the low gear and I got the plink plink of my rear derailleur hitting the spokes of my Zipp wheel.  Oh CRAP…now I am climbing KOM #1 in my 23 gear as my lowest gear.  The climb wasn’t brutal, but I was still burning some matches I would need for Mt. Baldy later.

Another long climb brought me back to the same SRAM guy that gave me the wheel originally, so I told him I couldn’t get in to the low gear, and he happily took a few minutes to set the limit screw such that I could now use the 25 cog and replenished, I set out on the 12 mile climb on Glendora Ridge Road back to Mt. Baldy Village.  I kept telling myself…”if I have another problem, I can just descend all the way back to the bottom, so I’ll just keep climbing until something else breaks.”  Again, the climb wasn’t too bad…more like a Diablo or Hamilton, with nothing really MoFo steep, just LONG LONG LONG.  And, I had the usual phenomenon of having the same people passing me at least a dozen times, then somehow I reel them in, and they pass me again, then they linger in a rest stop and I get ahead of them, and zoom, there they go again!

So, I pull in to the rest stop before Mt. Baldy Village and who is there but Brian!  I hadn’t seen him since mile 25; now at mile 70, and the SUPER SERIOUS FIVE MILE CLIMB up to Mt. Baldy Ski Station coming up, I regale him with my day of SUPER BAD LUCK and we resolve to stay with each other and take the last climb one pedal stroke at a time.  IF climbing a steep MoFo in a 25 was too much for me, I could always turn around and roll on down to the start (albeit with a severely slashed front tire).

We fuel up and roll down the short descent down to Mt. Baldy Village start the Death March up to the ski station.  From the village, you follow a creek babbling along to your right, all at about a 10% consistent grade for about a mile out of town, then you come to another cluster of homes and businesses, and a crazy woman waving a huge polka dot flag at you to take a left turn and start the REAL MoFo-ness of the climb, as the road takes 10 switchbacks up the last four miles to the ski resort.  Just after Brian and I took the left, Warren, Jon and Steve are heading down and we shout our HELLOS! but my head is just down, grinding out a slow cadence against the 10 – 16% grade that is now cooking my legs.  It brought me back to a few years ago, when I was just starting out, rolling over my cranks at 30 – 40 RPM, causing my lower back to tighten up further with every subsequent pedal stoke.

Man, was I wishing for my 34 at that point!  But, I was hanging in there…grinding it out…not giving up.  With about two miles to go, I saw a tent shelter on the opposite side of the road and, thinking it was an official water stop, I pulled in to rest my quivering quads.  Turns out it was some entrepreneurial family cashing in on my pain, so after about 2 minutes of rest, I set back out.  The stretch right beyond that point came close to breaking me…I saw a ranger truck pulled off in a switchback, but the ramp leading up to that left hander was so steep (probably 18 – 20% for about a hundred meters, I barely “survival stood” out of the saddle, not really pushing down on the pedals so much as allowing my weight to fall on the pedal, and made it to the ranger who proudly announced “only two more miles!”  Ugh…my quads were screaming at me, “STOP< STOP, you stupid SOB!!!!”

But continue I did…in a short distance, you top out starting at the bottom of the parking lot for the ski resort, and you descend in to a rough patch of road, then you start the final climb through the parking lot, but now climbing at a leg-searing 10 – 16%.  Brian had kept climbing as I paused at the shelter, and I saw him about 20 meters in front of me, and there were so many people walking their bikes at this point, I couldn’t tell if he was walking or riding.  As I got a better look, it seemed like Brian and I were the only ones riding, but those walking were progressing just as fast as we were, crawling up this final nasty pitch.  I started “paperboying” up this final pitch that seemed to go on and on, even though it was only about a mile long, but we finally got to a hard left that signaled the final few flat switchbacks to the finish.  I caught Brian just at that point, and fully intending to cross the line together, I spun up that Zipp and whipped around the final couple of turns and fully expected Brian to be there with me, but he was not to be seen.  He finished about 30 seconds back, but the flattish finish gave me renewed energy to finish strong, knowing I conquered a really nasty MoFo in an inconceivably high gear.

DONE!  I could barely believe I could finish that ride with so much crappy luck in one day…more crappy luck that could fill a year for me normally.

BUT, I STILL had a nasty gash in my front tire, and I still had 15 miles of descending in front of me.  Ugh…no time to rest on my laurels.  Brian noticed my front tire was bulging a bit, so I let off a bit of pressure from the front until the bulge receded, and then I started my careful descent from the top.  Not wanting to heat up my front rim, I dragged the rear brake on the Zipp (hey, it wasn’t my wheel…) down the first 5 miles of STEEP, stopping a few times to make sure the bulge stayed under control, and Brian agreed to stay behind me in case I had another blow out.

We saw Dan as he started that nasty stretch at the bottom of the parking lot, and I safely made my way down to Mt. Baldy Village.  I only stopped a couple more times and then gingerly made my way down the length of Mt. Baldy Road back to the start.  My luck held from mile 25…sort of…and despite the Cycling Gods ganging up on me the best they could, I MADE IT!

As I traded my Zipp wheel back for my trashed Mavic Aksium (it’s the one I hurriedly bought in the Pyrenees when I trashed another rear wheel on my 2009 trip), the SRAM guy was beaming “I worked on Bill Walton’s bike on the road, and I got him going again!”  Bill Walton was profiled in Bicycling magazine recently, him on a specially made bike to fit his 6’11” frame.

Despite all my set-backs, my official time from start to the top of Mt. Baldy ski station was 7:46:22.2 (about 75 miles).  BTW Bill Walton, Basketball Hall of Famer, finished with an official time of 10:13.8…TAKE THAT, Bill!  The winner, Jon Hornbeck, came in at 4:24:32, and Garmin’s Dave Zabriski came in 24th at 4:56:48.  I bet you Dave shaves an hour or so off the time in two weeks when it COUNTS for him.

Stats: 90.9 total miles, 11,260 feet of climbing, 11.8 mph average speed, 8:47 total time, 7:42 saddle time.  ACTC pace MB-

And, I guess, according to the SRAM guy, I now have “bragging rites!”

2 Responses to “L’Etape du Tour of California: the Mt. Baldy Stage”

bctlc8899 wrote a comment on May 9, 2011

Hola Mark,
I feel your pain, having stomped through the DMD 2011 in a 53-39 x 11-24. That silly spin class will have to wait! Besides, higher gears keep you up on on the bars nice and tall, too. Nothing like that to straighten out your back! And to relieve those pesky quad cramps, unclip and shake a leg. Backup? Endurolytes if you must, or dried sweet plum from Chinatown. See you on Sierra sometime, Brian

Patrice Carney wrote a comment on May 21, 2011

So count up the number of bad breaks, and count yourself lucky you did not crash with the bad front tire. However, you most definitely have bragging “rights” (big time) along with a wide assortment of memories! Hopefully you also have a few lessons learned from this ride – get you gear tuned BEFORE you leave home. You only have one you and have had your share of hard knocks in the past, so am very glad you made it through this in one piece with no mishaps.

I felt your pain with every paragraph! Way to go Mark!


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