The year Mt. Hamilton almost blew away
collection of ride reports from the wildest-yet New Year's Day ride
up Mt. Hamilton, a traditional yearly ride I can thank David Harvey,
one of our earliest (and still going strong) customers for. We've
done this ride for many years, and in the past have had snow,
rain, and spectacularly-clear and warm weather (not all at
once!). But never, ever, have we had conditions even close to
the wild winds this year. One guy told me he had literally been
blown off his bike three times (not a problem I had, probably
due to a bit more, er, ballast).
(It was only later that evening, well after the ride, that we
found out a local cyclist, Dan Plummer, had been killed in Los
Altos when a tree fell upon him while riding. There is no
question that this was not the safest day to be out riding a
bike, and what was fun for us (in a crazy sort of way) had
entirely tragic consequences for someone else.)
For those unfamiliar with Mount Hamilton, it's the tallest peak
in the San Francisco Bay Area, topping out at a bit over
4,200ft. You start the climb from Alum Rock at around 350ft or
so, and have two descents on the way up, for a total of around
5200 feet of climbing. The trip is 19 miles in each direction.
Normally, you'd look forward to the descent, but the truth is
that the climb is more fun; too many flat or wrongly-banked
corners, combined with too much gravel, make the trip down a bit
of a chore.
IT'S THAT "GUY THING" FOR SURE. Mt Hamilton, our annual
New Year's Day ride, virtually never missed (except for 2004,
when the wind was so bad that it was raining horizontally).
Something to look forward to, something to do on that very first day
of the new year, so that, no matter what happens the rest of the
year, you know you did at least something.
This year was different. This year, our sales manager in Redwood
City, Dick, was getting married on New Year's Day. And not just that
day... he was getting married at the top of Mount Hamilton. The plan
was that he and his wife-to-be (Janet) would leave from Grant Ranch
(about halfway up) and ride to the top on separate bikes, get
married at the summit and then ride back down on a tandem.
But the weather didn't cooperate; we rode up from the bottom to
Grant Ranch to mild rain and heavy wind, and the bride & groom had
decided to have the ceremony at Grant Ranch and skip the ride to the
top. Entirely reasonable, given the weather! Unfortunately, not
everyone got the memo, and some who were riding just a bit behind my
group (which was Richard & Ron) never saw us turn into the ranch,
and thought they were chasing us up the hill. Not just up the hill,
but into some really nasty weather! I thought that was a possibility
at the time, but didn't give it a whole lot of thought; after all,
those guys (Kevin & Karl & Jeff) were all reasonably-sensible and
wouldn't do anything stupid.
Meantime, after the wedding, my group (myself, Richard, Todd &
Ron) decide that it's so cold and nasty out there that, instead of
heading straight back down the hill, we'll ride in the opposite
direction, to the top of the first ridge, "just to get warmer." Bad
move. All three of us knew that riding in that direction was a bad
choice, because it would make it that much more difficult not
to go for the summit. Which, each of us knew, was a silly thing to
do. But that first little decision, that first step, seems so
innocent. Even though you know what it leads
In the photo above we find the fateful
encounter with Jeff K, who was returning from the top. Darn. This
was where we'd planned on turning around, but after coming across
Jeff, and his wild tales of climbing over trees and being blown
three times off his bike, how could we not continue? 11:25am.
Virtually zero wind, no rain (but threatening).
a difference half an hour makes! We're about 4 miles from the top
and Ron has stopped to try and secure his jacket in the gale-force
The inevitable becomes reality when, at the top of that ridge,
we meet up with a few riders coming back down, telling us about the
wild conditions up there. Darn, one of them was Jeff. He'd done it.
Gotten blown off the bike three times, he said, but he'd done it.
Our fate was sealed.Richard had to get back quickly, and was
able to haul my heavy camera bag back down the hill (so I didn't
have to drag it up to the summit), and Todd, Ron & I headed up. To
say that it was the wildest ride of our lives would be an
understatement; in the final five or so miles, the wind was blowing
so hard that, at times, you were literally being pushed up the hill
(yes, so hard that you didn't have to pedal!) and at other times
blown across the road. When one of the few cars came up behind me, I
actually stopped and got off my bike, since I couldn't be sure a
sudden gust wouldn't blow me into its path.
Trees had fallen all over the place, and if you tried to listen
past the howling of the wind, you could hear things breaking and
snapping. Unbelievable. We made it to the top, but didn't spend a
whole lot of time there as we figured it was going to be a very
long trip back down.
Regarding the top... well, not much going on! One car with a few
people (seen in the photo), plus Ron, Todd and myself. We've seen
far bigger crowds on years that it was much colder and even snowing.
But never, ever, have we experienced the winds that wrapped
themselves around the mountain.
In fact, at one point, heading
we were brought to a complete stop, even pedaling quite hard. I had
my feet on the ground, trying to push my way down and through the
corner. It was almost laughable. Fortunately, by the time we got to
the bridge (7 miles down from the summit), it had quieted down and
things became relatively normal. Quite the ride, quite the day! An
experience we'll likely carry with us forever. An experience which,
at the time, seemed rather scary and punishment for a very wrong
decision. But an experience which, looking back at it, was not one
to be missed.
Definitely a guy thing.
I'd like to start with 4 assumptions that I feel safe assuming most
people will believe are true:
1) Eating too much over the holidays
2) Water does not go uphill
3) A person riding a bike must pedal to go uphill
4) Stanford Students are intelligent
The New Year's Day ride up Mount Hamilton proved that there are
some exceptions to those assumptions I mentioned. Here's why:
1) I would have benefited from eating more over the holidays
because the wind at the top pushed me around like a sheet of
paper in a drafty room. There is a lot of talk about power to weight
ratio in cycling, but in this case it was frontal area to weight
ratio and mine was far too high to battle the strong winds
descending from the summit of Mount Hamilton. Although the weather
instruments near the top only read about 40 mph for the strongest
gusts when we were up there, I'll argue that the wind was much
stronger than that (and any subsequent telling of this tale will
recount stronger winds). Not only did it require an effort to keep
the bike up right, it required a serious effort to keep going
forward while we were descending. In this case, it would have been
nice to have a little more weight coming down the hill, weight which
could have been acquired from overstuffing myself during the
holidays. However, maybe my mistake was stopping to use the
facilities at the top.
2) Water usually travels downhill. That's why we have
On Mount Hamilton, the water was not only traveling uphill
(propelled by the gusty wind), it was being churned so much that the
puddles were turned white as the wind blew them uphill. If we can
have whitewater rafting with white water flowing downhill, why can't
we have white water cycling where cyclists fight to descend a wet
windy mountain where the water is blowing uphill? On second thought,
I'll pass on that one after Sunday.
3) Generally when you are cycling, you need to pedal to go
uphill. If you didn't need to pedal the Tour de France wouldn't be
much of a race.
Or would it? Rumor has it retired French rider Jacky Durand was
rather good at hanging on to door handles of team vehicles to get up
hills. Generally, you need to overcome rolling resistance, wind
resistance, gravity, and the gradient of the hill among other things
to move forward (A more technical explanation here
4) This depends on how you define smart. If SAT scores and GPAs
are the only criteria then this statement holds. If you factor in
common sense and rationality, then the assumption starts to break
down rather quickly. I get to make an example out of myself here,
but if you look harder enough you'd find out something they don't
want you to know and something that I won't tell you. My rationality
went out the window when Jeff came down the hill and said, "The wind
pushes you up the hill in some places (point number 3)". So knowing
this and being a (supposedly intelligent Stanford student) why did I
want to keep going?
Simple. Testosterone (he'd already done so I couldn't let him
outdo me, that is no way to start off the year), Curiosity (what is
it like to have the wind push you up a hill), and the fact that we
were only 7 miles away at that point. Our mistake was truly when we
decided to start up from the park to "warm up" before we descended.
I think we were all subconsciously thinking about going to the top
and that was a good (rational) way to get ourselves a little closer.
If you've ever been up Mount Hamilton, you'd know that we really
didn't need to head toward the summit from Grant Ranch to go up,
because the first section from Grant Ranch heading toward the base
is a slight climb. You really do have to wonder what were we
thinking. Perhaps that is the wrong question to ask. The right one
might be, "Were we thinking?"
The weather had been going
back and forth for rain or no rain. Last check said the
rain would hold till the afternoon. I was also going back
and forth as to whether or not I should participate in the
annual Mt. Hamilton New Year’s Day Ride, my first time in
Kevin called me at 0700 and
convinced me that I would be a wimp if I did not go and he
had room for me as well in his car. I threw together
various warm clothing along with my bike and a tub of
oatmeal and met Kevin and Leslie at the Park and Ride.
Plenty of clouds but no rain, that is until we get there
and start unloading the bikes! Now it was not quite
horizontal, but it was at least 45 degrees.
Now I am trying to think,
which is hard with wind and rain going on and clothing
choices to make and put on. Mike and gang pull up across
the street and they look determined. Me, I am definitely
having second thoughts. I had just cleaned my bike
yesterday but good, including chain removal and toothbrush
scrub, so it was spotless and freshly greased and lubed.
And I did not think to bring my SKS fenders or neoprene
Next thing you know Mike,
Todd and Ron (I think) head up the road…into the rain.
Well, its not raining that hard…so Leslie and I shove off
with Kevin waiting for Mark (recent regular on T/Th
ride). Why am I doing this and why didn’t I bring my
fenders!! The wind is howling out of the Southwest and
almost bowls us over several times. We start to see some
people turning around, hmm. The next wind gust forces
Leslie to lean her bike at least 30 degrees to stay up
right and I am aghast at the temporary angle. Then
another rider comes down and with a really scared serious
look, says “its really dangerous up there”. That look
along with how the trees were moving ahead and our own
indecision was the tipping point and we turned around as
well. We come upon Mark and Kevin coming up and tell them
that its just too windy and get them to turn around as
well. Now we are back to the car and with the rain easing
up just a bit, collectively decide to at least ride around
some, after all this is NYD and we are already out here.
So we head up towards Alum Rock Park, me more slowly, sort
of following, but grudgingly. Then we turn up this
blocked off road that is both steep and wet enough to have
to walk up it. Now this really sucks, I am thinking to
myself. Why are we going up here. I am playing Eyore, in
case you had not figured this out yet. Its steep and I am
hot in my plastic rain jacket and thermal tights, but I
temporarily get distracted by some sheep that I bah at and
they back at me. Then we see some little baby lambs
bahaing, likely scared of the crazy storm weather. Kevin
and Mark are ahead, me back with Leslie. Then our little
side road spits us back onto Mt. Ham road again. Greeaat
right back where we started, but at least the rain has
subsided. I get convinced to keep going up under the
guise of we will re-eval at Grant Ranch. I am thinking
that’s definitely where I will turn around as its only
going to be “windier” up higher, especially on top.
We expected to see Mike and
crew at Grant Ranch, but were surprised to not see anybody
at all. We all take a pee and discuss our options. Next
thing I know I am heading up the road again. Really hard
to stay upright around some of the corners after Grant
Ranch with the wind literally swirling around in eddies in
the turns. This makes for forces hitting you on either
side. At least the leaves sometimes give you a warning
from which side the wind will be coming from, so you can
prepare counter measures to stay up right. It did seem to
help to take off the rain jacket, more aero now. So on we
go, now its Mark and I leading with Kevin hanging back
with Leslie. It was Mark’s first time up Hamilton, so I
was telling him how the road will make some turns out on
the exposed ridge where the wind was audibly howling
loudest. We braced as we rounded the first left hander
and took the full brunt of the gale force blast of not
that cold air. We realized the worst was the initial
blast and that once it was head on, it was more just
powering into it and less side to side buffeting. Still
it was quite challenging to stay up right and oh yeah, how
are we ever going to get down? I am thinking very
slowly. We come to the tree across the road. That should
cut down the car traffic, I tell Mark. Then we ascend
into the clouds and darkish drizzle.
The road is switchbacking now
and I am amazed at the strong downwind on the left
sections. It's more of an upwind downwind as it both
pushed and lifted us to the point of no pedaling required
to go uphill. I felt like giant hand or arm chair was
scooping me up and shooting me up the hill. I would whiz
past Mark a few times who was enjoying these brief gust
less than I.
We are going to do this
after all, I am now thinking. We should get up and down
as quickly as possible we agree before the skies open up
and deluge us, as it looks it could do at any moment. We
make the summit, passing some other crazy cyclists and
then on up to the main observatory where we expected to
see Mike and gang. But no, no one is there at all, must
be locked I think, no, its open, we quickly go inside,
bike and all. Its warm, has 2 vending machines, drinking
fountain, bathrooms and blasting heater! We’re saved and
strip down to dry out our clothes eat our bars and drink,
etc. Still can’t figure out where everyone else is, but
at least its warm in here. 15 min. later Kevin pulls up,
but is not as cold as we were. Leslie had turned around
at the clouds. We poke around a bit and no Mike, no
wedding, so re don our duds and congratulate one another
for still being alive and each exclaim that “ I will be
the slowest down” and then take off …slowly. To our
surprise its not as bad as we thought. Our speed and
confidence grew, but we just had to really slow down and
be careful around exposed corners. I even put a foot down
once to stabilize.
Then we pass Mike, Todd and
Ron coming up?? How can this be? We regroup and discuss
how it was possible and then keep going down, down. I was
a bit cold and had the shiver wobbles going for a bit, but
was warming up some now. I welcomed the uphill section as
a chance to create some heat. The last section of less
steep afforded a fine clear view of Silicon Valley with
storm clouds o plenty, but I was not able to look much as
this was downwind and fast with road partially dry now.
Had to also watch for large branches and tumble weeds to
see which way they were going. So we made it down
without incident and were glad to be alive, all giddy with
enthusiasm and adrenalin.
We survived the mountain and
the weather, it was a good day afterall, now just give me
that hot shower and a warm dry place to nap. Happy New
My name is Steve R - and I'm one of the guys that rode up
to the top of Mt Hamilton on New Year's Day - I was riding with Jeff
most of the way up (I'm not sure of his last name, but he rode a
Raleigh and said he was a Raleigh dealer, if this is the same Jeff
you referred to on your Dear Diary page).
I was the guy on the white Trek 5200 (1999) that headed down the
hill about 10 or 15 minutes after Jeff. I remember seeing a couple
of groups heading up to the summit after I started descending - one
was about 1.2 miles from the top and the other group was about 2.5
miles from the top. You were probably in one of those groups.
Jeff was a little stronger than me that day - I was just back
from a week at Squaw Valley (but only got one good day of skiing!)
and didn't have my regular climbing legs yet - he ended up riding up
ahead just a mile before I got to the fallen tree. Since he wasn't
there, I assumed he had climbed over it to continue to head to the
So, I did the same thing, but took this one picture with my cell
phone camera - I thought you might want to have it (feel free to
post it on your website, if you want).
This was my first time doing the New Year's Day ride - I meant to
do it 2 years ago, but the ride got canceled due to the rain and
wind (sounds familiar!). Last year, I simply wasn't in very good
shape and didn't even try. But I've been doing a lot more riding
this last year (I work just 3 miles from Saratoga, so I get to go up
and down Hwy 9 to Saratoga Gap a few times each week).
So this year, I was determined to do the ride, no matter what the
weather was like - your diary entry pretty much summed up what went
down that day - once Jeff and I took off from Grant Ranch, we kept
discussing how stupid it was to be riding up the hill under such
ridiculous conditions - but he knew that a couple of other guys had
gone ahead and wanted to see how far they decided to go. One mile
lead to another and at some point, you just figured you might as
well go all the way - it never seemed that it would get worse than
the last curve you had just negotiated (which, of course, was
I have to say, even though it was one of the more dangerous rides
I've ever done, it was quite thrilling at the time, in a very
strange sort of way. I really started to look more carefully at
those trees after climbing over the fallen one at about mile 15.
Then this morning, I read about a 39-year old cyclist that was
killed that same morning in Los Altos Hills by a falling tree -
weird! And very sad. I realized if we had started that ride just a
little earlier, one of us could have been struck down by that tree
we climbed over. Makes you stop and wonder...
In any case, I hope to ride with you and your group some day -
I've really enjoyed your ride descriptions and have done most of the
rides you talk about - including the Bohlman-On Orbit-Bohlman ride!
I've also done the Haleakala climb twice (once 3 years ago and once
2 years ago - last year we went to dead-flat Florida for our family
vacation!). We're going back to Maui again this August, so I get to
do Haleakala again - it's such a great ride!
Also, based on the times that you mentioned for most of your
rides, it looks like I ride at about the same pace as your group.
Hope to see you on a ride one day - I'll try to get over for one of
your Tue/Thu rides. It's a little out of my way, but I have flexible
hours with my job (software engineer), so I'll see if I can sneak
over to Woodside one of these days...
- Steve R
from an old friend-
Check out Mike J. and his
friends' stories of their ride up Mount Hamilton on New
http://www.chainreaction.com/diary.htm . They
really do a great job telling the story of how tough the
weather conditions were.
Despite that, I think they
should be nominated for a Darwin award. (Sorry for the
dig Mike.) I saw you on your way to Grant's Ranch as I
was descending down to Alum Rock Road. I quit the climb
and turned around just before the top of the
saddle before the ranger station. I also had a
wardrobe malfunction and my friend Dino had to hold my
jacket arms so I could put it on despite the wind's
attempt to wrestle it away from me...... Chris
I don't question that they made a wiser
choice than we did, but Todd just pointed out to me that,
technically, I can't qualify for a Darwin because I
already have kids. --Mike--
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