Bike Rides & Hikes

Great Rides: Folsom Lake circuit full of fun, challenges for cyclists

The road bike journey around Folsom Lake is a classic: a great big circle with three tough climbs, two technical descents, plenty of scenery, a good bit of history and a fast, straight shot to the finish.

Sound like fun? For everyone but beginning cyclists it's hardly easy but very doable.

Of all the bicycle training routes near Sacramento, none is more heavily traveled by the best riders than this one. "Around the lake," as cyclists call it, is a 50-mile route that introduces hills without venturing too far from home. The pros will travel some of these same roads Sunday in the Amgen Tour of California.

In this, the first in a monthly feature in The Bee's Outbound section about great rides in Northern California, we will begin to explore what makes this region such a fine place to ride a bike.

Cyclists' options in and around Sacramento are incredibly varied, including many out-of-the-way roads that can make you think you're all alone in the world. Those roads include what may be the toughest climb in the area, Colfax to Iowa Hill, where the road is no wider than a bike path leading to a town that only recently got telephone service.

We also have the popular American River bike trail, perhaps one of the world's great facilities of its kind, a multiuse trail without motor-vehicle traffic that stretches 32 miles from downtown to Folsom Lake.

Because Sacramento is so flat, riders must leave town to tackle climbing. Whether you want to get into amateur racing or are a newer cyclist looking to get stronger, the foothills are a place to take advantage of the terrain and build fitness.

While the climbs on the "around the lake" route are not brutal, they are long enough for better cyclists to work hard and accessible enough for newer riders to make it up without too much humiliation.

Michael Sayers, a longtime Sacramento pro who retired last year, has done this loop for many years, making it a 100-mile Wednesday workout starting and ending in downtown Sacramento.

"That ride is the foundation of training in the greater Sacramento region," said Sayers, now an assistant director for the BMC pro cycling team.

Want to know how you compare to another top pro on one of the climbs? Consider Chris Horner, who in 2003 trained locally in the weeks before the world road race championship. Horner rode up Old Foresthill Road at an amazing 18 to 20 mph. If you reach anything close, you should consider quitting your day job and start shaving your legs.

At 38, Horner is having a great year and is finally considered one of the world's top riders. He will line up alongside Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer of the Radio Shack pro team at this year's Tour of California. The eight-day race's first stage on Sunday – from Nevada City to Sacramento – will climb out of the ravine to Cool, heading the opposite way from our loop.

We began our version of "around the lake" by parking at Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, where entry costs $10. (For free parking, there is a small shopping center about a mile down Auburn Folsom Road.)

The first stretch of the 50-mile ride is easy – heading down the bike trail for about a mile to the new Folsom Dam bridge, built years after the former bridge was closed because of post-9/11 terrorism concerns.

It doesn't take long to say goodbye to civilization as we know it, even in an area of a million-plus people. Salmon Falls Road is the start of the serious riding, with a long, low-stress descent and a couple of great views of Folsom Lake.

You'll spot several impressive houses perched on hilltops. For a while, it's easy to imagine you are riding in the rolling hills of Tuscany.

Once Salmon Falls bottoms out after several miles, you begin climbing toward Cool. If you're in shape, this is a good place to work hard and test your climbing legs.

There are two basic ways to improve cycling performance: long, moderate-tempo rides that build overall endurance; and shorter, harder interval efforts that drastically elevate the heart rate to improve power and break through fitness plateaus. The climb to Cool? Something in between.

At the top, you can let up and breeze through Cool, where you will find a couple of places to stop for Gatorade or snacks. If the ride isn't going so well, there's a saloon, too – a good place to call someone to come get you while you have your favorite adult beverage and think about returning to golf.

Next comes a tricky descent to the bottom of the Auburn Ravine. If this were a race on a course closed to cars, it would be time to show off your mad descending skills. But with some tight switchback turns and plenty of traffic, I strongly recommend you resist the urge to imitate Sean Yates or Paolo Salvoldelli.

At the bottom, you will cross a bridge and likely encounter plenty of folks doing other things, from mountain biking to fishing. From here, you can look way up and see the famed Foresthill Bridge, the highest in California. Gulp. That's where you're headed.

The climb up Old Foresthill Road is where you might realize you don't have a future riding alongside Lance and Levi.

Climbing is, indeed, the most humbling part of cycling. The key is to optimize what's known as your power-to-weight ratio. Most of us non-pros are either not skinny enough or not powerful enough – or both. The best option is using rhythm to your advantage, picking the right gear and spinning smoothly without excessive upper-body motion. Think smooth and steady.

After you make it across the bridge, you've probably had enough climbing and, mentally, you think you should be finished because you just spent all that effort getting out of the ravine. The devilish bonus climb to Auburn awaits. It's a tough, somewhat steep effort, but it doesn't last forever.

Once you're through Auburn, you get a breather before Auburn Folsom Road – your ticket back to the start-finish. It's a fast dozen miles or so of mostly flat or slightly downhill riding.

Checking my old notes, this is the stretch where Horner rode at a steady 38 mph. If that's what your speedometer says, your bike is probably on the roof and you're hitching a ride from that saloon in Cool.

Upward, pedal by pedal

This training ride isn't for beginners, but riders in reasonable shape should do fine if they pace themselves. The key benefit is climbing. Here are some climbing tips:

Maintain a steady rhythm; go at a pace you can sustain to the top of the hill. If you feel like stopping, you're going too hard. If the climb seems easy, go harder – and consider a career as a professional cyclist.

Stand and pedal occasionally to give your body a break.

Look at the scenery once in a while to take your mind off the suffering.

In the end, there's only one secret to becoming a good climber – do lots of climbing. It also helps to keep your body weight down. Excess weight is magnified when going uphill.

This ride will take from under four hours to more than six hours. A cyclist of average weight could burn 2,000 to 4,000 calories.

Need a shorter ride? Those unable to do the full 50-mile loop can start at the Nimbus Hatchery off Hazel Avenue and head up the American River trail toward Folsom Lake, biting off as much as they can handle for a ride of about 20 miles with a couple of nice climbs.

History in these hills

Where it goes: This route travels through the 20-mile-long Auburn State Recreation Area, which offers horseback riding and gold panning, hiking, swimming, kayaking and fishing. Auburn has plenty of Gold Rush history. A 45-ton statue in Old Town Auburn of Claude Chana panning for gold is a major feature. Chana was the man who discovered gold in Auburn on May 16, 1848.

What to see: The Foresthill Bridge, opened in 1973, is the tallest bridge in California, 730 feet above the north fork of the American River. Vin Diesel fans, among others, know this bridge for its spectacular stunt in the action movie "xXx," in which Diesel drives off the bridge in a red Chevrolet Corvette, then parachutes to safety.

What you'll learn: Folsom Lake's history dates only to 1955. It is a reservoir created by Folsom Dam, which was built to control the American River and lessen the chances of flooding. Water levels can change dramatically based on seasonal rainfall and snowfall in the Sierra.

Directions - "Around the Lake" loop

*Print and clip these directions to your bike: In your internet broswer window, click File, then Print to print the directions below. There are a couple of options for folding and carrying the route directions. The best way is to clip them onto your stem or handlebars. There are now specific clips for sale at bike shops for this. A do-it-yourself way is to take a large binder clip and use electrical tape to fasten it to your stem. Fold and clip the route to the that. When in doubt, stop first before checking directions.

Begin in the parking lot at Beals Point in the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area.

Head toward the bike trail and go left down the hill1.45 miles right, to get on the Folsom Lake crossing

4.14 miles: Left onto Green Valley Road

7.08 miles: Left on Salmon Falls Road

19.3 miles: A right on Rattlesnake Bar, then a quick left onto Highway 49

26.81 miles: Right onto Old Foresthill Road

30.20 miles: Left at the top of climb onto Foresthill Road

31.6 miles: Cross the Foresthill Bridge, the highest bridge in California

32.6 miles: Left onto Lincoln Way

34.5 miles: Right on Lubeck, then left on Finley

34.86 miles: Left onto Stadium Way

35.07 miles: Right onto Agard

Left on High Street, then left onto Auburn Folsom Road

50 miles (approx.): Left at light into Folsom Lake State Recreation Area