Bike Rides & Hikes

Great Rides: A nearly 60-mile route that heads for the hills -- hard

If you live in or around Sacramento and you're a cyclist, you can ride hundreds of miles a month and never encounter a hill.

While all that flatland can be comfortable, what most of us crave is the chance to tackle some serious elevation gains.

We yearn to climb. We want glory, even if we often wind up with a healthy dose of humility.

Though there is not a single hill of consequence in the entire city, one of the beauties of where we live is that you don't have to go far to find hill after hill after hill.

That's what this ride is about, the second in our monthly series in which we ride and explore our great region for bicycling.

To an outside observer, our route this month might look strange and scattered, beginning in Loomis and traveling 59 miles without really straying far from our starting point.

The map doesn't make sense unless you know the route's purpose: to hit the hills. On this ride, we hit upward of 17 hills, some with steep grades over 20 percent in brief stretches and many in the challenging but not arduous 8 percent to 12 percent range, according to my new Garmin 500 GPS bike computer.

If this ride sounds hard, it is. But one nice thing to remember is that hills are hard for everyone. Even the pros don't simply glide up.

Sure, they are going faster than cycling mortals, but they suffer, too.

Road cycling is a sport with many great components. The ability to ride in a pack shows us how cooperation and organization can make us go faster together than we can on our own. Being able to ride alone and connect with our bike, our position, our breathing, our form allows for something soulful. It helps us appreciate the beautiful machine that is the bike – and that it only works when we work with it.

Riding with efficiency – without a bobbing head or swaying torso or knees splayed – reveals that the key to a fine ride is to put all our energy into the pedals, to avoid wasted motion.

Maintaining the proper pace puts us in touch with our fitness level – sure, we can go fast, but are we doing the right kind of fast for the length of the ride?

But perhaps nothing in cycling tests or tempts us like climbing. It reveals what we are. Are we light and strong? Heavy and plodding? Are we tenacious, stubborn? Or do we give up too soon? Can we come to grips with what it means to suffer and, at our own level, find some degree of glory in that?

The start of our Great Ride is in Loomis Basin Community Park. There are two parks, one on either side of King Road. You want the one on the south side.

I have done this ride twice recently and highly recommend it. The route is one I filed away from a Sacramento Wheelmen ride years ago. On a weekday morning, there was very little traffic on many of the roads.

You'll know you're in a cool area for bikes when you pass Trailhead Coffee & Cycling Lounge at Taylor Road and English Colony Way in Penryn. They have good coffee and baked goods, along with plenty of authentic bike memorabilia.

It's only a few miles into the ride but worth stopping to stock up on gluten-free energy bars made by co-owner, professional chef and former pro bike racer Rob Johnson.

I asked the personable Johnson about climbing and about the area around his cafe. "There's a certain person that's designed to do that, i.e. someone who is 145 pounds," said the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Johnson. "The more you do it, the easier it gets, but I tell people not to climb five times a week because you're going to break down."

Of this neck of the woods, he says, "There are not that many vehicles, and the terrain is extremely varied. If you like to climb and ride in a rural environment that is close to the city, this is it."

Our first hill comes after a couple of miles of warming up, when you hit Penryn Road, a dragstrip of a climb that is good for getting in the groove. The grade is 5 percent to 7 percent, which the pros would do in their big rings.

The first really tough climb comes 13 miles in, at Chili Hill, where you encounter pitches of nearing 20 percent over the course of a mile of up and more up. Most of it is a steady 11 percent to 12 percent – tough going. Don't blow it all on this climb. You still have Baxter Grade.

By now, you start to wonder: Is every road named Something Hill? Crater Hill. Bald Hill. If you can still breathe when you top Bald Hill, check out the great views.

Then comes Baxter Grade, and this is where you learn something about yourself. For most of us, that lesson is, "I'm glad this isn't how I make my living." You have two miles to the top, you're nearly halfway through the ride and this is your 10th hill. Now is the time to go hard.

It's climbs like this that will test your legs and your willpower. As Johnson told me over the phone, your mind will usually break before your body.

This is the glory in cycling, whether you're here with a couple of friends or on the slopes of Mont Ventoux vying for the yellow jersey.

You will not look good on this climb. No one does. It will be difficult to keep your pedaling smooth, your cadence (the rpm of your pedals) high. But the more you do this, the better and tougher you will be.

There are two other climbs I want to mention. Ridge Road is well-known among serious cyclists. It's a good place to race your friends going up and a bad place to race going down the long side toward Gold Hill (too many driveways and the possibility of cars pulling out).

This climb is a series of steps along a ridge, which offers another skill to practice: shifting gears. To keep the right pace, you will have to shift several times. Toward the top, give it some gas and get into the red zone.

After a little recovery, you hit Indian Hill, another classic. It's a long, straight shot and doesn't look like much. This is what racers call a "power climb." Talented riders can go up here at 18-20 mph all the way to Auburn Folsom Road two miles away.

After this, the hard part will be hanging in there until the ride is over. There are only four more climbs, and you will begin to wonder near the end if you are ever going to get back to that darn park.

Congratulations. You are a climber and you've burned 3,000 or more calories. If you want to be a good climber, keep on doing rides like this one.