Bike Rides & Hikes

Great bike rides: Colfax/Iowa Hill is not for sissies

Our "Great Rides" have taken us on long, moderate climbs around Folsom Lake. We've tackled punchy climbs in and around the Loomis-Newcastle area. We've racked up 87 speedy miles hammering out to the wonderful Winters countryside and back.

What has it all prepared us for? To suffer even more, of course.

If you are not in excellent shape, you may be asking yourself two questions at some point along today's route in the Iowa Hill-Colfax area of the Sierra foothills:

Why am I doing this to myself?

Who in the world is Richard Zipf?

In fact, once you settle into the wonderful sport of road cycling, you either learn to embrace suffering or find something else to occupy your time.

Suffering is staying on your bike when you want to get off. Suffering means doing things you didn't think were possible – going farther, longer, harder and steeper. It's battling that voice in your head that's telling you to stop, that it's not really worth it, that you must rest before you hurt yourself.

Suffering is being triumphant at your own level of riding. There is a simple glory in that.

This ride will show you what it means to suffer – and cover some of the quietest, prettiest, most remote roads you can imagine in California.

I have ridden this route several times. I learned about it a decade ago from the website (www.Central that Richard Zipf created to catalog and share his favorite rides.

Zipf, now a 71-year-old semiretired ophthalmologist – I still spot him commuting to work along the American River bike trail – is one of the unsung heroes of Sacramento cycling and someone I have long admired. My life is richer for having done most of the epic rides on his website.

Ironically, this 66-mile slugfest, with its 7,000 feet of elevation gain, begins and ends at a Park and Ride along Interstate 80. From there, it leads you up and up into the heart of Northern California road cycling. After a warm-up of about 15 miles, you turn right at Colfax and head toward the north fork of the American River via a lovely, twisting descent.

Once you cross the river, it's time to embark on one of the two or three toughest climbs in the Sacramento region: a relentless, 12.5 percent average grade for 1.8 miles to the tiny general store in Iowa Hill.

Some of this route is included in the annual Auburn Century. With options up to 140 miles, it's billed as the "world's toughest century," and anyone who has completed it has no intention of suing for false advertising.

Climbing Iowa Hill Road requires plenty of training and the right equipment. I have a rear cassette with a 29-tooth gear that I install on my bike just for this ride. Even then I wish for more gears: It is an arduously slow turning of the cranks that keeps the bike going. Even excellent riders go 10 mph or slower.

Make sure you take in the spectacular view as you rise ever higher. Once you turn away from the river, you won't see it again.

If you find this climb easy, you really need to sign up for that little three-week race they have in France.

The road, no wider than a bike path, is relentless all the way to Iowa Hill. There, you won't find a stoplight. Dogs wander wherever they like and sleep on front porches. This is the America we thought we left behind 75 years ago.

Stop at the store for a breather and a Gatorade from the old fridge. Though the glamorous part of the climb is over, you're far from done going uphill – stop for no longer than 10 minutes, lest your legs get tight.

The next climbing stretch involves an amazing 14 or so miles along narrow roads through deep woods. If you listen carefully, you will hear birds singing, the whispering of the wind and little else. No cars, no roar of far-off traffic.

The road climbs through this stretch in a steady if sneaky way. Because of thick foliage and the close quarters of the narrow roads, it is difficult to get a sense of the elevation. But you will feel it in your legs and your lungs, the accumulation of miles making you ache by now.

"There are so few people and so few cars that in California in 2010, it really is extraordinary," Zipf told me when I called recently to chat about this ride.

At 38 miles in, you hang a right onto Foresthill Road. As you do, you enter another kind of paradise – a near-perfect road practically devoid of traffic and ever so slightly downhill for much of the next nine miles. This is a time to celebrate with some speed, especially if you are with friends with whom you can take turns pulling at the front of a pace line.

We're nearly finished. The next significant climb – Yankee Jims Road – appears so steep as to be impossible. But hey, if you made it up Iowa Hill, this is like eating key lime pie.

Before you know it, you're back at the Park and Ride, and you've completed one of the most amazing and taxing loops you could have imagined.

This is Northern California cycling at its finest. And if you suffered, you will feel privileged to have done it on this wonderful route.

For an archive of Great Rides, go to


Long, hilly rides are tough enough. Long rides on which there is a squeak, a chirp or a clickety-clack for miles can be unbearable.

That's what inspired Jim Langley, the former technical editor of Bicycling magazine and a longtime bike mechanic, to create a page on his website devoted to the noises bikes make.

The page is

Noises are organized by sound: rattles, squeaks, creaks, clunks, etc. Langley details the possible problems along with user-friendly solutions.

"Bicycles have a lot of moving parts, and there are many noises they can make. They are all annoying and frustrating," said Langley, who lives in Santa Cruz and is a contributor to the impressive free online newsletter Road Bike Rider Review.

Even if the noise doesn't translate into an obvious performance problem, it can add up over the miles to a distraction.

A silent, well-tuned bike, on the other hand, allows the rider to get in a zone and enjoy the ride far more.

Langley says the information is geared toward the do-it-yourself mechanic.

For example, under "squeaks," Langley points out that one common source is the pulley on the rear derailleur. The website includes a photo and instructions: "Rest your bike on its side and apply a few drops of oil between the pulleys and sideplates to silence them. Wait a few minutes for the lube to penetrate, then wipe off any excess."

Before embarking on your next great ride, check your bike for noises, even minor ones. Getting rid of them before you start will make the ride much more satisfying for you and your fellow riders.

– Blair Anthony Robertson


Great Rides and its companion, Great Treks, are monthly features that invite readers to enjoy the region's outdoors by bicycle and on foot. Have a suggestion for a route or another kind of great outdoors experience? Send an e-mail to


The town of Colfax (population 1,878) is steeped in Gold Rush history and has a charming little downtown. It's a good place to stop for a bite to eat during or after the ride.

Basement Wines, 27 S. Main St., a wine bar and wine shop, is also admired for its fine sandwiches.

Evangeline's, 5 Depot St., is a cafe with good sandwiches and breakfasts.

Then there is the Miwok Inn Diner, 212 N. Canyon Way. Relatively new in town, it is known for healthy meals as well as traditional diner food.

History buffs can take a self-guided tour of Colfax. Pick up the brochure at the Chamber of Commerce, 99 S. Railroad St.

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