Adventure Cyclist: All We Do Is Ride Uphill
Story and photos by Kyle Sparks
As a photographer, my career has taken me to the far reaches of the world on several occasions. But none of my experiences abroad compare to a recent cycling trip — pedaling through my home state, straight uphill. This idea spawned from stories of a trip my dad went on in 1976. He rode his bicycle across the U.S. from Oxnard, California, to Millinocket, Maine.
A couple of good friends, Brian Mich and Rob Thompson, and I embarked on an eight-day journey from Camarillo, California, to the highest pass in the Sierra mountain range. We explored the regions that define California’s wilderness by riding through Lockwood Valley, Los Padres National Forrest, Carrizo Plain, Central Valley, Kings Canyon, Sequoia National Park, and Yosemite National Park.
Brian was in charge of finding roads for the ride, and he decided to make it a “fun” bike tour by aiming to ride uphill as much as possible. This probably was in line with Brian’s “Type II” fun motto: “Not always immediately fun, but almost always fun later.”
What goes up must come down, right? When I mentioned the proposed route to my dad, he glanced over the plan and said, “This looks really hard, and I hope you like riding uphill.” He looked at me with eyes that said, “you are going to regret this,” and walked back over to the couch to finish drinking his ice-cold beer.
Time to ride. I got up, stumbled around in the darkness, and woke Brian and Rob. Brian was awake, but still lying in bed. Rob looked at me like I just kicked over his bike; he was angry. He rolled over and tried to fall back asleep. I told them that I had made coffee and it was ready in the kitchen. It was a total lie. I don’t even drink coffee. Hot chocolate, sure, but coffee? Not a chance. Nonetheless, Rob crawled out of bed. When he found out that coffee was simply bait to wake him, he grunted and put a pot on. After the final packing, we said our goodbyes to Brian’s family, telling them that we would see them in Tahoe in a week.
Spirits were high as we pedaled down the roads of Camarillo. I led the group. We hadn’t been on the road more than five minutes before a car laid on its horn. Next, a little blue convertible pulled up next to me with the driver waving frantically. The driver turned out to be my mom, waving goodbye as she drove to work. The guys had a good laugh about that and we continued to ride through Camarillo toward Oxnard and the Pacific Ocean.
We made a quick stop at my house across town to get more tubes and say goodbye to my dad and little brother. I resumed my position at the front of the group, and soon heard another car blasting its horn. This time it was my ex-girlfriend, who I had broken up with two days before. She was the last person I wanted to see, as I was still a bit emotional about the breakup. I pulled off the front of the paceline as Rob rode up next to me. He said, “Kyle, you have 800 miles and eight days to sort this out, buddy; for now just ride it out.” In truth, all I had to think about for the next week was cycling. With this thought in my mind, I jumped onto the back of the pack and kept pushing pedals.
Brian, Rob, and I pedaled through the fields of Oxnard and Ventura. These nice, flat roads have great bike lanes. We knew that soon enough the flat roads would give way to our first major climb — Pine Mountain, 5,080 feet. After a right turn in Ventura, we started up.
The Ventura River bike path is 11 miles and 700 feet of elevation gain from Ventura to Ojai. Growing up, I rode on this bike path often. It used to leave me exhausted every time I rode it. This time, however, that path didn’t faze me in the least. It was 10 am and already 80 degrees. After our brief stop in Ojai, the group was back on the road, this time on Route 33, climbing toward Pine Mountain. We could feel the weight of our panniers. I had been standing out of the saddle for a few miles when Rob rode beside me, singing at the top of his lungs. Rob was still comfortably seated, using his easiest gear and spinning away. Meanwhile, I was pushing my road bike hard. With a double chain ring and nine-speed cassette, the bike is not ideal for touring, but I was determined to make it work. We both started singing to pass the time while climbing up the scorching ascent toward Rose Valley. After a few hours of climbing, we pulled off the highway for a water stop. It was nearly sunset as we reached the summit of the first big climb.
Camping out that night in the green grass of a firehouse right off Highway 33 seemed like a great idea. This area is primarily dry, with desert-like landscape. Why the firehouse had a well-manicured lawn was not our concern. After a quick dinner, we laid out the ground tarp under the night sky, put our pads and bags down, and quickly fell asleep. About 20 minutes later, we awoke to the dreaded sound of sprinklers. We were under attack by the firehouse’s irrigation system. The group quickly mobilized and moved the tarp to another section of grass out of the sprinkler’s reach — and then back to sleep. Then another attack came more quickly and forcefully. At this point, I was done moving around. I just covered my face with my sleeping bag, hoping someone else would deal with the problem. Luckily Rob was on it in seconds, jamming the sprinkler’s movement with a large stick. With the sprinkler issue resolved, we drifted back into a deep sleep. In the morning, we’d make our apologies for disrupting their watering schedule.
Our ride started before dawn, avoiding the extreme heat we were sure to hit in the Central Valley. Much longer and flatter than the previous day’s ride, we rode single file toward Bakersfield, stopping only once to fix a flat tire a few hours into the day. This would be my first of 12 flats during the tour. Several hours later, we arrived in Bakersfield, overheated and in need of shade and time off our bikes. We ended up at a Chinese restaurant and quickly burned through several plates of food. We then rested for a bit in the shade of some trees.
We rode 104 miles through the heat, from Kern River to Three Rivers. I was given the nickname, “Tipping Rock.” I had fallen over twice because I was unable to unclip from my pedals when we came to a stop. Tipping Rock now joined Riding Bear (Rob) and Napping Pony (Brian) in the river to cool off and mentally prepare for the next day of riding.
The group woke in a funk, setting the stage for some difficult riding. A light mist and rain clouds filled the sky. Plus, we had a very tough climb in front of us called “The General’s Highway.” We wanted to ride 80 miles through the park, but the steep incline, pouring rain, and Rob’s swelling right ankle set us back.
We had just one choice: Embrace the pain and keep on making progress up the mountain because this was the route we had chosen. After some debate, we decided that our original goal of Lake Tahoe was unobtainable. That night we air-dried our gear in a laundry room while playing card games and eating dinner. We slept in our tent, which we realized was falling apart and leaking in several spots. It was a rough night, but we were all too tired to care.
“It’s not a bike tour unless we ride uphill,” Brian said. This day would be the longest day of our tour, stretching 114 miles.
We were relatively close to reaching Yosemite, but 50 miles of hot uphill climbing stood in our way. We had been riding for three hours when Rob suddenly jumped off his bike and threw it at the ground. The stress and pain had finally gotten to him. His right ankle, which was now two times the size of his left, had been bothering him for the past three days. Not really knowing how to handle the situation, I rode up to Rob on the side of the highway, got off my bike, and sat down next to him without saying a word. Brian rode up a few minutes later, and, feeling the frustration in the air, plopped down next to me.
There we were, three good friends sitting on the side of the road, defeated. We sat there for 10 minutes, not knowing what to say to each other. Then I glanced over at Rob and cracked a small smile, hoping I wouldn’t get smacked in the face. Rob then put his head in his hands and started laughing hysterically. He got up and continued riding down the road. All I could do was laugh. As the sun was setting, we crossed the gates of Yosemite and descended toward a campground in Wawona.
After a few more hours of climbing, we reached the tunnel into Yosemite Valley, a sight I have seen many times before, but never from the seat of a bike. We ended up following a large group of construction vehicles through the tunnel, which was nice because we knew that no other cars were going to come up from behind or in front as we rode into the darkness.
We emerged from the tunnel side-by-side with raised arms and smiles that went from ear to ear. We stopped for a few photos and a quick water break. An elderly couple asked us if they could stand in front of our bikes for a few photos because they wanted to tell their friends that they had ridden up the road from the valley, a few thousand feet below. They reminded me of my grandparents, and I happily shot their photo.
After clipping back into our pedals, we made a quick descent to the valley and rode to Yosemite Village for lunch. Feeling sore but re-energized, we made our way out of the valley toward Highway 120 and the final climb of the tour, Tioga Pass. Climbing up the highway was very similar to many of the other climbs we had accomplished: hot, steep, and seemingly never ending. For some reason, it felt like we were riding uphill the whole day, and my biggest problem was I could never rest, just stand up and push a big gear the whole time. We arrived at a campground in White Wolf, exhausted. Brian and Rob both fell asleep lying on top of their sleeping bags, not bothering to inflate their sleeping pads.
We woke, ate, packed up, and got back on our bikes — and started climbing again. The pain in my legs was extreme, but I pushed on. I just thought about moving in a continuous circle and it seemed to help. Several more miles of climbing found us in Tuolumne Meadows, where we stopped and had a quick lunch.
From Tuolumne Meadows, the 9,945-foot Tioga Pass was only nine miles away. Rolling out from lunch, we were passed by another cyclist out on a day ride. For reasons unknown to me, I broke away from Brian and Rob and took off after the cyclist. I was up out of the saddle pushing big gears, chasing him down as I caught glimpses of his bright cycling kit a few turns ahead of me.
After three miles of this, I felt the burn in my legs and sat back down, switched to an easier gear, and just kept pedaling up the road. After another mile, I looked back and saw Rob charging 200 yards behind me. I knew that it had now become a race to the top of the pass. I clicked down three gears, stood up, and started cranking up the climb, trying to put as much distance between Rob and me as I could.
Now, after eight days of the hardest riding I had ever done, I was racing flat out at 9,000 feet, going into aerodynamic time trial positions and pushing the hardest gear I could. My lungs and legs burned, but I was not going to let Rob beat me up the climb. When I looked over my shoulder, he was gaining on me. I clicked down a few more gears, tucked to as small a position as I possibly could and pushed myself to the limit. I could see a row of cars stopped up the road, and knew they were waiting in line to exit the park. I stood up out of the saddle one last time and sprinted for the finish line. As I came to the park exit, I raised both arms in uncontrolled joy, knowing I was at the top.
Rob caught me 30 seconds later. We exchanged high fives with each other and everybody else that was standing around the parking lot. The cyclist that I had chased up the climb had arrived a minute before I crossed the line. To his credit, Brian hadn’t joined the race and showed up 10 minutes later. We celebrated, shot a few photos, talked about the sprint to the finish and how we only had 10 miles of riding left. We then moved on to what food we were going to eat that night, and how excited we were to descend the backside of the pass.
As I said before, what goes up must come down. We put on our windbreakers, checked our brakes, and got ready to fly. This side of the Tioga Pass is an eight-percent grade for 10 miles. The group went three wide as we started to make our descent. As we came around a corner, the whole valley opened up and we could see for miles, grasping how steep but straight the road was. The road is cut out of the side of a mountain, and to our right was a huge drop-off, which was a bit intimating, but our fear quickly faded. I stood up one last time, looked over at Brian and Rob, smiled, and placed my hands in the drops. I tucked into a descending position, took my hands off the brakes, and proceeded to pedal up to speed until my legs couldn’t keep up anymore. After I stopped pedaling, I looked at my speedometer — 55 mph. I stayed at this speed for the whole descent. At one point; Rob, who was in my draft, came around me doing at least 60. The sound and force of the wind at this high speed made me feel as though I were driving in a convertible sports car on the freeway. It was without question the fastest and best descent any of us had ever cycled in our lives.
After our descent, we coasted into Lee Vining, overjoyed that nobody had crashed. With the Sierra Mountains now behind us, we rode the last few miles toward Mono Lake, got off the bikes for the last time, and collapsed on some picnic tables in the shade.
The tour was everything I could have dreamed of — and more. Even though we didn’t make it to the original destination of Tahoe, our goals were accomplished. By undertaking this excellent adventure with great friends, we were able to experience California in a way that was unfamiliar to us. When it was over, we knew that we had pushed ourselves mentally and physically. And it felt great.
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This article originally appeared on our website, AdventureCycling.org.
For almost 40 years, Adventure Cyclist has covered stories of bicycle travel and adventure from around the world. As the only magazine dedicated to bicycle travel, we adventure from bike overnights to cross-country rides to ‘round-the-world tours that have no planned end date. We’re known for finding inspiring photography, insightful stories, and tales that make our readers long to hit the road.