Great Bike Rides: 31-mile Delta ride is flat-out enjoyable

Published: Monday, Jan. 10, 2011 - 10:24 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011 - 2:45 pm

With its massive maze of waterways – 1,000 miles can be navigated by boat – the California Delta is one of the great places to kick back, slow down and stay awhile.

There are quaint little towns, quiet roads, striking old bridges, even a couple of ferries to haul you from one side to the other for free.

Fishing, bird-watching, boating, chillin'. The Delta has something to offer anyone who isn't in a hurry.

This part of the Central Valley, its name alluding to the triangle formed by Sacramento, Stockton and Pittsburg, is also an excellent place for a bike ride.

Unlike some routes in our monthly Great Rides series that included climbs big and small in the Sierra foothills, there's not a hill to speak of here. OK, there are a few slopes leading up to bridges, but they don't count.

There are so many route options – and so many ways to get lost in the Delta – we decided to keep it simple. We started in Courtland, about 25 miles south of Sacramento, and did a 31-mile, counterclockwise loop. In the summer, we'd have done a similar route beginning in downtown Sacramento for a total of about 80 miles.

The biggest challenge for the Delta cyclist is wind. We ran into a pretty good headwind, though we have experienced many that were far fiercer in this area.

When it's really blowing, cyclists can be slowed to single-digit speeds. Just think of it as the equivalent of a steep climb in the hills.

Because the ride is so flat, I opted to use my fixed-gear bike with a 42-tooth chainring and a 14-tooth sprocket on the rear wheel. With that configuration, I go 20 mph when my cadence (the speed I rotate my pedals) is 90 revolutions per minute. Downwind, we cruised at 22 to 24 mph. Into the wind: 16 to 18 mph. That makes for a nice spin and, this time of year, when cyclists are easing up for a few months, just right for maintaining fitness without really pushing it.

We rode on a Saturday and were pleased at how lightly traveled the roads were. On a couple of them, we didn't see a single car for several miles. And when we did, Delta motorists seemed noticeably more courteous than those in some parts of the region. Yes, they earn their laid-back reputation.

As we rode along the Sacramento River, the cars that passed us swung wide and gave us plenty of room. That makes for a more relaxing ride. In turn, respecting motorists by keeping as far to the right as possible will show them that courtesy swings both ways.

Just a mile into the ride, as we headed south toward Walnut Grove, we spotted Tony's Taco Truck parked on the right side just after a beautiful old bridge across the Sacramento. Note to self: That will make a great post-ride recovery meal (details to come).

With the bright morning sunshine, the river sparkled. The temperature was in the mid-60s. To our left were miles upon miles of farmland, and at one point early on, we saw more than 100 goats grazing in a field.

On this day, the wind was slightly into us for the first seven miles until we reached Locke. I noticed the elevation was 13 feet above sea level. We took a quick detour, left down to Main Street and several unusual businesses, including the Locke Chinese Medicine Shop and, of course, Al the Wop's restaurant, famous for its steak sandwich with peanut butter.

A few miles later, the elevation was 12 feet. In other words, don't expect any screaming descents or leg-breaking climbs. Have we made it clear that this place is flatter than Kansas?

What can you focus on to improve as a cyclist when riding on flat roads and battling the wind? Let's take a lesson from golf, my other sport. In golf, wind exaggerates weaknesses. A poorly struck shot into the wind will balloon into the air and blow off line. The wind tells you where you need to improve and requires you to focus on precision.

In cycling, a headwind can reveal shortcomings in your form. If you are wobbly – if your hips sway from side to side as you pedal, if your head bobs and your elbows and knees are splayed – you will struggle into the wind.

Also, watch your cadence when it's windy. If your gear is too big, you will turn the pedals too slowly into a strong wind and your leg action will seem labored, as if you are trying to muscle your bike rather than spin efficiently.

In any athletic endeavor, if it doesn't look smooth, it's probably not efficient.

I like my fixed-gear bike because it requires me to be smooth. When your cadence is high and your pedals are really moving, your form must be good or you will bounce on the saddle.

Into the Delta wind, focus on your form and on maintaining a cadence around 90 rpm, the standard for smooth, powerful pedaling.

On our route, we had river views, we saw vast fields of wine grapes, we passed a couple of fruit stands and spotted at least one sign that got our attention: "Fresh eggs for sale."

On the backstretch, just as our legs started to burn a little, we rolled up on the Cosumnes River Preserve, one of the great places to view wildlife.

We were lucky to see a great blue heron take flight near us, its wings seeming to span the width of the country road. We also came upon four turkey vultures picking at a dead possum, performing their duty as nature's cleanup crew.

Vultures are also incredible to see in the air; one flew alongside us for a half-mile no more than 15 feet off the ground, riding the wind in search of a thermal current to take it higher.

Swainson's hawks can be spotted hunting for rodents in fields, though they head south toward Mexico for the winter. In turn, majestic sandhill cranes arrive in September and stay through March, feeding on leftover grain in fields as well as insects and small animals. They are best seen early in the morning at the Cosumnes River Preserve.

Not long after the preserve, we hit a road-crew detour. But it worked out, as we swung right onto Desmond Road, which headed through more wetlands. Weathered and bumpy, this narrow road made me think of the quiet countryside in northern France and Belgium. If you want to hammer at this point and channel the heroes of the great one-day Paris Roubaix bike race, now is the time.

Checking my GPS several miles later, I noticed we had about five miles left. I was getting hungry and a little tired. What is it about the last few miles of a ride? Whether it's 30 miles or 100, it's always nice to know you're almost there.

My girlfriend and I picked up the pace a little and raced toward Highway 160, where we hung a left and headed back to Courtland.

The legs felt good, we had witnessed Delta diversity and quirkiness, we encountered nothing but cool folks and, yes, we made a bead for Tony's Taco Truck.

Experts tell us a good recovery meal has a balance of carbohydrates and protein. They never say it can't taste good.

We got the taco combo with refried beans and rice – $4 – and a chicken quesadilla for $3. Beyond the mainstream meats, options include cabeza (beef head), lingua (tongue) and buche (pork stomach). Everything we had was delicious.

We headed back to Sacramento refreshed.

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Read more articles by Blair Anthony Robertson

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