Vortex, downdraft, and marble-sized hail were sprinkled through the weather forecast yesterday afternoon, along with warnings to "keep your animals inside".
"Good thing you didn't start riding last night...it was pretty wild," the manager comments as I load up my bicycle at the Sanborn hostel, nestled deep in the redwoods above San Jose.
By this morning the storm has vented and blown south, and sunlight streams through the clean and dripping redwoods. Ferns glisten in the woods, the stream swells its muddy banks, and steam billows from the twig-strewn road where sun penetrates the redwood canopy.
It is a refreshing start to a five-day, 450-mile bicycle ride that will circumnavigate San Francisco Bay. The route traverses an amazing diversity of landscapes: hills and suburbs of the East Bay, islands and channels of the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, vineyards and forests of the North Bay, headlands and beaches of the Pacific Coast, and ridges and ravines of the Santa Cruz mountains. With many travelers already in or out for the Christmas holiday, it is a good opportunity to be a tourist in one's own backyard.
The journey begins with a steep descent on Sanborn Rd to Hwy 9, which rolls down to the quiet town center of Saratoga. The streets are hosed clean from the rain, and large holiday wreaths sparkle from the street lamps. I ride eastward to Los Gatos, which is stirring with the smells of brunch, and continue on a small climb up Kennedy Rd, where ferns sprout from mossy, dripping banks. The road crosses to the dryer side of the ridge and makes a quick descent to the storm-swollen Guadalupe River. I skirt the edge of the suburbs on Camden Rd and join McKean Rd, where older ranches seem more at home among the oak-studded hills than do the new estates sprouting like fungi.
Out in the countryside, meadowlarks compete in choral lines from either side of the road. I ride past Calero Reservoir and take Bailey Rd east, then head north on a busy Monterey Hwy to the community of Coyote. At the first opportunity, I exit the main thoroughfare to the paved bike path that winds peacefully through the cottonwoods and willows of Coyote Creek.
With the morning warm-up over, it's time to escape the valley, and Metcalf Rd is happy to oblige. The steep grade quickly engages the climbing legs and the pace allows plenty of time to enjoy the expanding view of the suburbs of San Jose. At the crest of the hill, the snow-covered ridges of the Diablo Range appear in the distance, confirming that snow and ice have closed the road to Mt. Hamilton. This morning the web "hamcam" at the observatory was clouded with frost, and the weather service advised "travelers to seek alternate routes". So instead of climbing Mt. Hamilton and taking San Antonio Valley and Mines Rds to Livermore, I will stitch through the ridges bordering the East Bay.
I descend on San Felipe Rd, through quiet ranches that seem like a fifty-year time warp amid the bustling development of Silicon Valley. After a few ups and downs, the road breaks through a window in the hills to the stucco tan and white housing tracts piled up against the ridge. I make a quick stop at the Evergreen Community Center, where a Christmas party is underway with punch, cookies, and Christmas carols, and all the folks seem to know each other.
A quick transit through the suburban maze brings me to the foot of the next exit ramp out of the valley on Clayton Rd., which begins with an earnest climb up an oak-lined ravine. The air is clear and fresh after the rain and spiked with the pungent smells of bay laurel and eucalyptus. Orange trees deck the yards of several homes, and ripe fruit hangs like Christmas ornaments on a living Christmas tree.
As the road turns for its first switchback, the valley is already far enough below to invite hang-gliding. As if on cue, a red-tailed hawk launches from its perch and soars out over the valley.
At the junction with Mt. Hamilton Rd, I reluctantly head down instead of up and wind through the suburbs along the base of the ridge. The next exit to the hills is Sierra Rd, which never fails to provide an entertaining climb. Wasting no time with switchbacks, it shoots out of the valley and hurdles over hills that are velvet green from the recent rains. The view soon looks like that from an airplane. Clouds are thickening and the sun makes a kaleidoscope of gray, white, blue, and yellow over the bay. Near the summit I catch glimpses of clouds enshrouding the distant ridges, where I would be riding if not for the snow. The roller coaster descent off the back side of the ridge on Felter Rd is well worth the price of admission.
All too soon the descent ends with an abrupt right turn onto Calaveras Rd, which climbs quickly over the divide and then contours above Calaveras Reservoir, nestled in its namesake's fault zone. The road swings in and out of gullies with streams cascading from the steep hills, deeply shaded by maples and oaks. Several years ago I rode this route for the first time -- at night, when a slide had closed the road to vehicles. With a weak headlight and uncertain bearings, the sensation was one of descending a mineshaft, with each rushing stream sounding like the roar of ventilation ducts in an adit. Today the road is open to vehicles, and hurried commuters are taking the entire road, seemingly without regard for bicycles or oncoming traffic.
A few sprinkles leak from the darkening clouds, but are not enough to wet the pavement. The road finally drops to the head of Niles Canyon at the historic railroad town of Sunol, which is decorated to the hilt for Christmas. Santa, sleigh, and reindeer, but no steam train today. The dazzle of the holiday displays must have disguised the intersection with Foothill Blvd., so I stop to ask directions from some local residents.
They point behind me and then reply in astonishment: "You're going to ride all the way to Pleasanton on your BIKE? There's nothing out there for miles!"
Having ridden over 80 miles already, I cheerfully assure them that I can make it and motor on through all four miles of nothing. At the junction with Castlewood Rd, I dip under Interstate 680 and return to civilization.
Strings of lights outline the porches, gables, and bay windows of the trim older houses along First Ave in Pleasanton, which has managed to preserve its historic center amid the area's recent boom of office complexes and shopping centers. Stanley Blvd takes up the eastward transit into no-man's-land, where the only redeeming feature is a bike lane separated from the fast traffic of the thoroughfare.
First Street takes over again in Livermore and lands me at the Livermore Inn for the night. The hotel is nearly empty for the weekend and provides basic no-frills accommodation suitable for the construction crews who fill it during the week. I stroll downtown past windows painted for the holidays and fill up on veggie burrito at a taqueria. Back at the hotel, I fall asleep to the rush of traffic on the main drag.
Noah's Bagels holds the winning breakfast ticket over Starbucks and Safeway, all conveniently located across the street. I roll north out of a slumbering Livermore and into the country, where Livermore Ave reverts to a quiet country lane lined by gnarled black locust trees. Heavy clouds over Mt. Diablo hold little prospect of a good view, so I decide to skip a wet foggy climb that I've done many times before and reroute the ride to the east. I skirt a housing development that has jumped the freeway and take Northfront Rd to Altamont Pass Rd. This road was once a key link of the historic Lincoln Highway, one of the first cross-country automobile routes from New York to San Francisco. In the early 1900's the road was crowded with travelers, but today it is remarkably quiet, since parallel Interstate 580 carries most of the traffic.
As I start the gentle climb towards the windmill farms that blanket the pass, a rumble builds steadily from behind. Then comes the languid whistle of the train. I glance back a couple times at the approaching Union Pacific. As the lead engine pulls alongside, the window slides open, and engineer waves. I wave back enthusiastically and jump out of the saddle. The race is on! Train pulls ever so slowly ahead. Bike jumps to 19 mph to hold even. Engines rumble, pulling the long string of cattle and freight cars up the grade. I pedal like mad, hauling a mere 15 lbs. of touring gear up the hill. Near the summit the road climbs a bit more steeply than the tracks, so the train is gaining again. I pedal harder. Bike flies past the freshly painted Summit garage, marking the famous Altamont way station on the old Lincoln Highway. Train is moving ahead and turning to cross over the highway. I tuck into the descent as bike swoops under the trestle. Train rumbles over the trestle, squealing and clickety clacking. The last cars pull out of sight with a long whistle call, leaving me in silence to catch my breath.
I thread through the windmills, which are still and silent today, and climb another gentle grade. At the next intersection I turn left on busy Grant Line Rd, cross the California Aqueduct, and take another left on Mountain House Rd at a sign marking the Historic Route of Jean Bautista de Anza. Here, the small community of Mountain House was once a travel stop on the Lincoln Highway, and bits of the old road can still be found near the historic Mountain House Cafe.
To the east a dark shower curtain hangs in the Central Valley, and to the northwest Mt. Diablo is skirted in white like the Sugar Plume Fairy. The storm-free corridor is about to close as I head north through farmland and past pumping stations for the canals. Rain splatters the road and picks up on Byron Hwy, which is busy with recreational and truck traffic and offers little shoulder for a bicycle. In Brentwood, I escape the highway and head back into the country on Hoffman Rd, a quiet lane winding through the orchards of this productive farmland that is fast loosing ground to housing developments. The rain picks up, but so does the tailwind, which pushes the bike north on a busy Sellers Ave to the Antioch Bridge, where bicycles can cross on the shoulder.
Hwy 160 is funneling the holiday traffic north, and I'm glad to leave it behind by turning off on the levee road of Sherman Island, the final wedge of land between the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers before they merge and flow through Carquinez Strait into San Pablo Bay. The road surface is cracked and crimped like pie crust, and I splash through the puddles, snug in wool and raingear, happy as a...dowitcher in a mudflat. A flock of the long-billed gray birds are milling about in the shallow water, probing the mud, twittering like the random noise on a synthesizer. The river is quiet except for the splattering of rain, with few boaters or fishermen or anyone else out in the gray weather. A cormorant poses on a piling like statuette.
I wind around the island and reluctantly rejoin the busy highway, heading towards the impressive dual towers of the Rio Vista Bridge over the Sacramento River. Noting the pressing traffic backing up across the bridge, I opt for pedestrian route to better enjoy the "river view". At the drawbridge tower, a plaque is engraved with "Most Beautiful Steel Bridge, 1960". It has never occurred to me that bridges garner such awards, though I'm reminded that Joseph B. Strauss designed both the Rio Vista and Golden Gate bridges. A sign warns to stand back should the drawbridge start going up.
I roll into Rio Vista and stop at a motel on the main highway. While signing the registration card, I venture, "Discount for bicycles?" It's worth a try and has actually worked on occasion, perhaps because it is so illogical.
"Hmph", the manager responds, eyeing dripping, muddy bike, "oughta charge extra for a bicycle. I just fixed up the room with fresh drapes and a new chair."
"Oh, but it's a very well-behaved bicycle", I assure her. "It won't lean on the drapes, sit in the chair, jump on the bed, or wipe its greasy chain on the hotel linens." She looks startled, as if the latter hadn't entered her litany of bicycle offenses.
"Well, O.K., I'll give you five dollars off...but only because it's the holiday and you're by yourself." I thank her graciously.
If the reception is a bit cool, at least the adjacent laundromat is warm. As bike clothes tumble in the dryer, I sit in the plastic orange chair and peruse the local newspaper, listening to the drone of country music and the chirping of video games. There's an editorial about the lack of holiday decorations in town. The rain lets up, so I walk downtown. Not having the fortitude for a full service sit-down meal, I settle for a hearty bowl of split pea soup and a turkey sandwich at the bakery. I return to clean clothes and a drip-dry bike.
It rained hard during the night, leaving behind a blanket of fog. Breakfast at Henry's Cafe is good and filling, with enough coffee to warm the ride into the chilly morning. The climb through the Montezuma Hills west of Rio Vista can be very hot and windy in late spring and summer, so I appreciate the cool and calm of winter.
The roads are deserted, but Montezuma Ranch is alive with sheep. Lambs frolic in pastures that roll out like bolts of green corduroy under the foggy fleece. Bleating is close and muffled in the fog. A special birthing pen holds ewes tending newborn lambs wobbling about on spindly legs. The sheep scatter at sight of the bicycle, an amusing reaction that contrasts with the studied curiosity of cows.
Wind lifts the fog as I head north on Shiloh Rd to the intersection with Hwy 12. A generous shoulder paves the way to the Suisun City exit. The waterfront in Suisun City seems to have benefited from a recent facelift, though little is happening in downtown this morning. I continue along the waterfront on Cordelia Rd which separates industrial land from pasture and marsh, and turn the corner at Cordelia Junction, where food and lodging franchises bunch together at Interstate 80. Pitman Rd crosses over the freeway and continues through some new industrial parks, where it changes name to Suisun Valley Rd. I ride through the gentle hills, which provide some shelter from the wind, and enjoy the picturesque vineyards of Wooden Valley.
Ahead is the first of several north-south ridges that I will climb in crossing the grain of the landscape. A gap in the wall marks the route of Hwy 121 that makes a long southward traverse to gain the ridge top. After the moderate climb, I enjoy the fast curvy descent down to Napa Valley via Atlas Peak Rd and Hardman Ave.
The vineyards of Napa Valley are brown and trim and smell of must. A few yellow mustards have already ventured out in the furrows, anticipating the festival of blooms that will deck the valley in another month or so. I head north on Silverado Trail and turn west on Yountville Cross Rd to Hwy 29. Several excellent cafes in Yountville tempt a stop for lunch, but I want to make good time in the short daylight, so unwrap a Snickers bar and continue on around Yount's Hill.
The next ridge involves an invigorating climb up Oakville Grade. As I'm grinding up the steepest part, a group of cyclists swoops down the hill, obviously enjoying the fast descent. They give me an encouraging thumbs-up. At the first saddle, Oakville Grade joins Dry Creek Rd, which is a more gentle approach from the south. A short descent allows enough time to stretch out the legs before the final effort to the summit.
The payoff comes with magnificent views of the Sonoma Mountains beyond the Valley of the Moon of Jack London fame. A swift, twisty descent on Trinity Rd lands me in Glen Ellen. The sun is finally more out than in, brightening the day and lifting the spirits. Again I pass on some great lunch spots and head west out of town on Warm Springs Rd.
A quick left puts me on Sonoma Mountain Rd, which is like an amusement park ride for bicycles. It twists under spreading oaks, through stands of stately redwoods, along dashing stream, and over waterfalls tumbling among with mossy rocks and ferns. At the summit, redwoods invite meditation over the valley below, and indeed the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center is perched on this vantage point. Presley Rd takes up the descent and rolls out into the sun through beautiful green pastures and vineyards.
Countryside gives way to civilization on Cotati Rd, which becomes Sierra Rd and has a bike lane most of the way through town. The hills continue with Roblar, Canfield, Bloomfield, and Pleasant Hill Rds to a narrow and busy stretch of the Bodega Hwy, which I would avoid next time. At the small historic community of Freestone, the holiday lights of the French bakery and gift shop are lighting up the dusk.
I switch on the bicycle lights and turn north on the Bohemian Hwy, which climbs gently through dark forest to the small town of Occidental. A chorus of frogs accompanies the faint squeak of pedals.
The lights of Occidental, accentuated by dazzling holiday decorations, are a welcome sight. I roll up to Negri's Hotel, check in, and head down the block to a long anticipated meal at Negri's Italian Restaurant. The bountiful, family-style servings are delivered with enthusiasm and good cheer. I retire full and content after a good day on the road.
I sit down to breakfast at Howard's Cafe as soon as it opens at 7 am. Bill Howard, one of the town's early founders, lent his name to the cafe, but the menu's current vegan touch might have left ol' Bill scratching his head.
Occidental claims the highest ground around and all roads lead down from here, except for Coleman Valley Rd, which climbs steeply out of town. The road winds up through redwoods along a rushing stream and breaks out of the forest onto a ridge with stupendous views up and down the coast.
The descent to Hwy 1 is steep, and the shelter provided by inland valleys is left behind as a stiff southeasterly wind batters the coast. White plumes blow from the crests of breakers like the rooster tail of a snowplow. The weather forecast calls for possible showers, but the wind seems to be keeping the clouds at bay.
Hwy 1 passes through the town of Bodega Bay and then heads inland to Valley Ford, where there is some shelter from the wind. Continuing south, I roll into the small community of Tomales, where the landmark bakery is closed for the holidays, much to the disappointment of a few cyclists. I continue south along Tomales Bay, which exists courtesy of the San Andreas Fault zone.
The store at Olema Ranch campground provides a good opportunity to buy provisions, since there isn't much between here and Sausalito. It is well stocked with sundries, and I am delighted to find a small can of Three-in-One oil to stop the annoying pedal squeaks that have developed since the rain. South of Olema, small hills punctuate the route, and the straight course of Olema Creek now marks the trace of the San Andreas Fault onshore.
At the top of the hill north of Dogtown, I check back at a trailing SUV, wanting it to pass so I can enjoy the fun little descent ahead. It speaks, like a megaphone: "There's a fun little descent ahead, just take the lane and go for it, we'll stay right behind you..." I zip down the slalom course through the eucalyptus, and wave a thank-you as the vehicle, surely manned by cyclists, goes by.
The trace of the San Andreas Fault is about to sink offshore again at Bolinas Bay, and I'm ready to head inland on the Bolinas-Fairfax Rd. This climb has such a constant grade over nearly five miles that a single gear will do for all 1500 vertical feet. It is one of my favorites. With each higher overlook, the view expands from Bolinas lagoon to tidal channels to bay to the sparkling expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Midway up the climb, two photographers are aiming serious-looking equipment at an unsuspecting waterfall, which is highlighted by shafts of light penetrating the redwoods.
A bolster pillow of clouds is rolled up behind the ridge and streamers of fog drift down the seaward side. The road reaches the saddle at a dark drippy intersection, where a popular mountain biking trail takes off along the ridge to the north. There's usually a congregation of cyclists here, both road and mountain, but today there are none.
I continue along Ridgecrest Blvd, which soon breaks out of the forest to stunning views of the coast. The roller coaster ride continues up to the junction with the spur to the summit of Mt. Tamalpais. I skip the side-trip today, wanting to finish the day's stage in daylight, and descend Pantoll Rd, turn left on Panoramic Hwy, and join Hwy 1 in Marin City. This stretch of road is typically thick with traffic on the weekend, but now is nearly deserted. After crossing a rather bike-unfriendly maze under Hwy 101, I catch the bike path that dumps onto Bridgeway, the main drag through Sausalito.
Dinner will be carry-up tonight, since the hostel is several miles and a good climb out of town. Sausalito Bakery provides turkey sandwich, Greek salad, and Christmas cookies decorated with pink frosting. I climb out of town towards the Golden Gate Bridge. The road to Marin Headlands exits just before the bridge and climbs earnestly to spectacular views over the ocean and San Francisco. Bridge and city lights are just beginning to glimmer as the sun sets in pink and gold bands over the ocean.
At the top of the hill, a very helpful park ranger provides a detailed map and directions to the hostel, and I much appreciate the help, as daylight is fading quickly. There's a steep descent down Conzelman Rd which I'm glad is one-way down, then a jog to the right, and finally a short climb up to the cluster of buildings of old fort Barry, which have been refurbished for various modern uses. The multi-story hostel is ablaze with light. In the front yard, a buck and a doe pose like lawn ornaments and move slowly off into the woods as the bicycle rolls up. Owls hoot hauntingly from the pines behind the lodge.
It's Christmas Eve, but there's no need to worry about "no space at the inn" tonight, for the hostel is nearly empty. A couple of families have taken over the community kitchen and tantalizing smells of their gourmet feast fill the air. I unwrap my turkey sandwich and scan the remains of the San Francisco Chronicle while kids scamper around the table. The Glacier Room with its several empty bunks is all mine, so there's no problem getting a silent night's sleep.
I do my five-minute chore and slip out of the hostel early to head for breakfast in Sausalito. The Sausalito Bakery is open at 7:30 am, and the kind proprietors offer the same gracious greeting of the evening before. I enjoy a fresh cinnamon roll and coffee and hop on the bike in a spirit of good cheer. Gulls swoop around the waterfront as a few joggers and dog-walkers stroll the quiet streets.
I climb back up to the Golden Gate Bridge and in spite of following the rules regarding holiday/weekend pedestrian/bike traffic, end up on the wrong side of the bridge. Apparently the rules have changed with the recent heightened security, and the ocean-side walkway is closed. The National Guard escorts me rather brusquely to the stairs that link under the bridge to the bay side.
As I've found several times in the past, there's very little traffic on the bridge or in the city early Christmas morning, providing a good opportunity to venture into San Francisco without the crowds. I follow Lincoln Blvd along the edge of the Presidio and climb by the mansions of the Richmond district. El Camino Del Mar continues down to the Great Highway, which follows the Pacific Coast south. I roll through the ill-timed traffic lights, watching breakers crash on the beach and a few hardy surfers testing the waves. At Lake Merced, the Great Highway joins Hwy 35, and Hwy 1 soon exits to Pacifica, where I pick up the bike route on Palmetto Ave.
After rejoining Hwy 1, I climb over the infamous Devil's Slide, where an unstable hillside is intent on dumping the highway into the ocean. The views of the coast are spectacular, but this precarious constriction demands attention. The road opens out on the descent and provides a nice shoulder through the rather strung-out community of Half Moon Bay.
Further down the coast, Stage Rd, a segment of the original coast highway, provides a more interesting and quieter alternative to Hwy 1. When I took this road for the first time several years ago, an antique car rally was parad ing the route, and the Model T's seemed just the right vintage for the ranch houses and pastures of this undeveloped coastline. Stage Rd makes a quick descent to San Gregorio, where the grocery store is open even on the holiday, and then continues in two big humps through chaparral and occasional stands of eucalyptus. At the small town of Pescadero, Duarte's restaurant appears to be open, but I'm on a roll and want to stay on schedule for a 5 pm arrival at Sanborn hostel for Christmas dinner.
As I turn inland on Pescadero Rd, rain starts to spatter lightly, but doesn't amount to much. For the first time since leaving Napa Valley the wind is at my back, and the bike flies uphill on its own. Redwoods, ferns, and creek zip by. The road steepens a bit towards the summit and then makes a quick descent to Alpine Rd, which plunges into the jungle along the creek in a narrow winding climb just suited for bicycles. The road finally breaks out of the trees and hops over a succession of anticipatory summits with increasingly better views. At the ridge top, it joins Skyline Blvd, which takes up the march to Saratoga Gap.
I stop for a quick refueling of chocolate bar, which I share with another cyclist in the interest of "lightening the load" for the climb back up to the Sanborn hostel. The fast descent on Hwy 9 gives the legs just enough time to chill before the initial steep grade on Sanborn Rd. Ouch! Anticipation of Christmas dinner provides incentive for motoring through the second pitch. Guests are already beginning to arrive, and I try to calm my breathing and look casual as I pedal up to the lodge.
With 45 minutes to spare before serving time, there's plenty of time to pack away the bike, take a shower, and build up an appetite for dinner. It is a magnificent spread -- two enormous turkeys with all the trimmings, yams, vegetables, and pumpkin pie. Sylvia and Art Carroll, dedicated volunteer restorers and caretakers of the hostel, have made Christmas dinner at the Sanborn a tradition for a number of years, and the event is well attended by folks coming "up the hill" for the evening, as well as by hostel guests. The feast is a cyclist's dream after five days on the road.
Despite the whole-hearted efforts of 55 people, there's plenty of food left over. As we wash the dishes, Sylvia contemplates what to do with a full tray of yams. Noting the quantity of food put away by hungry cyclist, she informs me:
"There's an old cycling tradition of eating yams at midnight to give energy for the next day's ride."
If only she knew how easily such a proclamation could enter the folklore of cycling. But tonight I'm stuffed as a turkey and quite content to save this tradition for another holiday.
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