I was lucky enough to be required to be in San Diego this month for our company’s 2011 global sales conference. Of all the gin joints in the world that they could have chosen, SD was the one that made me whoop out loud for joy.
You see I have family in SD and I’ve been making reasonably regular and in some cases extended trips to the area since 1991. Indeed, it was in 1991, two years I after started riding mountain bikes, that I spent an amazing summer there, riding in and around the canyons that are dotted around the local area. I’ve been back many times since but never with a bike and never with a view to riding. So when the company announced where it was having the conference, I was more than just a little excited.
In truth, the idea of taking the bike with me and taking a few extra days leave only came after I’d made the initial arrangements. I honestly thought taking the bike and trying to fit in a meaningful ride would be too much like a hassle. But I remembered that Whafe had posted a few pictures of some of his San Diego based rides and a quick search brought back some pretty rad photographs. I emailed him saying I was going to be there and what was the deal with riding as if it was possible to set something up, I could perhaps take the bike.
Well that was like clicking the ultimate ‘execute’ button because the reply I got from him was ‘hey, awesome, it’s all set up, this guy called Steve is going to take you on the most amazing ride you’ve ever done. By the way, how fit are you only the ride could end up being quite long’.
From that point on it was all sort of a ‘fait acompli’. The next thing I know this guy Steve is bombarding me with what I can only describe as the most intense propaganda campaign I’ve ever been subjected to. The quantity and quality of the pictures in his email probably caused my work mail server to go into melt down and some of the scenes depicted caused me not a little anxiety. Some of the stuff was pretty serious – like 30 foot blind gap/step down jumps serious. And all this from a guy who was reportedly the wrong side of 50!
A little dry humour on his and Whafe’s part had me frankly, cacking it! But overall, the images were so mind blowing that there was never any chance of not getting on board a plane without my Nic. Suggestions of 40 miles and thousands of feet of elevation were causing as much anxiety as the largeness of the jumps. I used to be national champion level of fitness (not actually national champ, just that degree of condition), but these days I’m a little more committed to other aspects of life, like a wife, young son, busy job etc.
OK so I survived! Although in truth we didn’t cover anything like 40 miles. I owe this to the simple fact that even in California it gets dark at 5.30pm in January and the sun rise is a lazy 6.30am so with only 11 hours of useable daylight (that has to include breakfast, travel, fannying around etc), a 40 mile ride was never on the cards.
First thing I want to report on is my guide – Steve Gordenker. He is something of a local hero in the San Diego area riding community; the sort of guy that when you’re out riding with, more or less everyone that you bump into will know of him, usually via the MTBR.com website and more often than not because they recognise his bike (twas ever thus).
This guy is more than just a local hero though. He’s also about as top a bloke as you’d ever want to spend time with on a bike. Far from being the ‘whose got the biggest balls’ contest I was worried about, he immediately put me at ease and said that the only thing he cared about was making sure that this was the most amazing bike ride I’d ever done. He does this ride pretty much every weekend; he knows the place like the back of his (very tanned) hand and so much of what was just mind blowing for me, has to some extent become passé for him. So taking a newbie out on his home turf was his way of seeing the trail through new eyes.
Not only that, but he stands for something that every MTBer should adopt and take close to their heart. He doesn’t just embody many of the highly esoteric and utterly individualistic characteristics of many people here, he positively raises them by a whole order of magnitude.
Firstly, the guy rides a fully rigid, Jones 29er with a 26” front wheel that has a monstrous 3.8” front tyre. Oh and did I mention that he rides single speed?
When I was setting this ride up, I posted on another forum just how many people could undertake a 40 mile ride of this nature and some people joked I should ride it singles speed . Well they should eat their words because this guy rode 24 miles, with 4000ft of seriously rocky elevation and descent on a freakin’ fully rigid, single speed, 29er hybrid. And he didn’t just ride it, I mean he rode the pants off of it. Steve is probably about the best technical rider I’ve ever met. His quick enough on the descents, on a rigid bike, so that I had to work to keep up on everything apart from the most rocky of trails (he did have a slight advantage in that he knew every single rock, pebble and grain of sand on the ride) but where he really excelled was in riding the technical features he’s built over the whole place (he’s built so much that it’s a big part of his local fame!) Some of these were seriously scary pieces that I didn’t want to go anywhere near; precipitous 3m high boulders with almost vertical roll ups and then similarly vertical roll downs where you had to both commit serious speed (not to mention skill) to get up and then serious bottle to get down. Think Danny McCaskill and you’re not far off.
So the ride. What can I say apart from one of the most amazing days I’ve ever spent on the bike and certainly the best ride I’ve ever done.
You drive east of San Diego for about 90 minutes, over into the dry, arid and rocky mountains you can see from the coast, to a place called Pine Valley. This is proper pioneer type territory; think ‘Little House on the Prairie’ or John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’ and you’re very close.
The ride starts from going up straight from the car park and it doesn’t stop going up for 12 miles, by which time you’ve climbed 4000ft or thereabouts. The initial part of the trail, which is also the final descent, is a gravelly, sandy path that is interspersed regularly with big technical rock sections that will eat your rear derailleur and have most people clanging their pedals and walking. Even Steve, with his Jedi like technical skills, didn’t clean it all. The great thing with this climb though is that you get to see the trail you’ll be descending at the end of the day, so you can scope some of your lines and the features.
After about 1000 ft and a couple of miles, you do get a break and the first real descent, which is also the last climb of the day. Depending on which way you’re going this is either just the first descent, or it’s called ‘The Whore’ if you’re on your way back and it’s the final climb. Incidentally, the last descent is called ‘Extra Credit’ because it’s possible to circumnavigate the ‘The Whore’ and just drop directly back into the car park, but you don’t get the last amazing descent.
The first descent then is a subtle and relaxed introduction to the style of riding. Fast, swoopy single track that opens up into broader double track at just the right points, i.e. where the trail is fastest, allowing you to carry loads of speed into the natural jumps and berms that pepper the track.
At the bottom of this climb though is where things get serious because from here it really is non-stop uphill. The first section is about four miles of road climbing with an average gradient of about 1 in 10 and in places it’s more like 1 in 7. They call this one ‘Alpe D’Wheeze’.
Beyond that you can choose to continue for another six miles of tarmac or take a rocky trail up Indian Creek. This thin ribbon of technical, rocky single track threads its way up the side of the mountain, taking in a seriously rocky section called ‘The Waterfall’. At the top of this you get to the Sunrise Highway and an amazing view of the top valley, where the fires raged a few years ago and there are still charred and scared trees. You can also see into the Anza Borego National Park, which is desert and a designated wilderness area.
This is the top and from here it’s more or less downhill all the way home (apart from ‘The Whore’ of course).
I was pretty tired at this point but still feeling strong enough to give it beans. The trail starts off as a fast, smooth and very swoopy ribbon of single track. You’re carrying lots of speed into turns and you need to get committed to the front of the bike in order to make it around some of the turns. It’s always strange riding completely blind behind someone who knows the trails intimately, even if they are riding a fully rigid bike (except of the suspension action of a 3.8” front tyre) and I found myself in the unusual position of having to work really hard to keep Steve in view. Fortunately there were just enough seriously rocky sections to allow my advantage of 150mm of suspension to work in my favour and catch me up.
The smooth ribbon of single track does however give way to much more serious rock – ‘chunk’ as Steve calls it. If you’re familiar with the rockiest sections in the Peak, such as ‘The Beast’, the drop down to Rowarth Mill or the more serious sections on the classic Edale loop, then you’re sort of almost there, but the rockiest sections were quite a bit more rocky that those. One section called Hell’s Staircase, really is a rock garden worthy of the best riders. I had to ride it three times before I could clean it and that involved one over the bars moment.
But undoubtedly the most amazing thing about the ride (apart from the weather, which as you can see was sublime, about 25 degrees and baby blue skies) is how you pass from one eco system to another.
At the top of the canyon, you’re in open pasture, then you move down into a woody glade, almost Alpine in feel before then dropping (via the serious rock gardens) into arid desert where the frogs and crickets croak and chirrup.
The scenery is breathtaking; just utterly breathtaking. The views out over the desert and the surrounding mountains are to die for. The sheer magnitude of the location, the ‘out there’ feel to it, is stunning. At one point I actually snapped my chain and being on 10 speed and not having a dedicated 10 speed connecting link (with Steve not even being ‘any speed’) I was seriously worried that we would have an extremely long push/scoot back. It snapped just at the half way point and we were then a very long way from anywhere. Fortunately a 9-speed link seemed to work without too much protestation from my drive train.
Hopefully the photo’s will do this write up some justice. The whole thing was one of those ‘book mark moments’; those experiences in life that act like bookmarks in your memory. It will be one of those days that I think about on my death bed and I count myself lucky to have had the opportunity. The only problem now is that the Surrey Hills seem so utterly pointless.......
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