Cloudburst

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It’s 9:30pm and Dan Sharp, Ira Ryan and myself have been in the mini-van for fifteen hours. It’s dark outside and Route 110 – the Pasadena Freeway – is poorly lit. It drives like a tedious, uneven go-cart track, one built for narrow wagons and 1930’s touring cars. Eight miles of uniform S-turns broken intermittently by twenty-seven dangerous off-and-on-ramps. One of them, Figueroa, is our exit and the next step to Cole Maness’ house. Cole isn’t home, instead he’s headed to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to collect Aaron and Hahn who are coming down from Seattle. Aimee, Cole’s girlfriend and tomorrow’s driver, is waiting for us all.

We find Cole’s stupidly steep driveway through a tunnel of trees and plants. On the other side, his three-bedroom house sits on a hillock, surrounded on all sides by indigenous vegetation–dense and lush and cool and salubrious, like a surf resort in Costa Rica. Open windows and proximity blur the boundary between outside and in. In the backyard, two half-made beds on frames and box-springs blend into the flora, along with a hammock and a bike stand.
By 10:30pm we’re all seated on Cole’s hideous green linoleum fake marble floor. It’s clean considering that three Beagles, three cats and several bikes pass through the kitchen several hundred times a day. We’re discussing Cloudburst.

Daniel: Cole, you’re the local here, this is your ride. Tell us about it.

Cole: It’s a 98-mile loop through the San Gabriel Mountains. We head east on foothill roads and a bike path. Then we climb 6,000ft on a road mostly closed to cars. Then we ride Angeles Forest Road back, past Mount Wilson and Mount Disappointment, and down to Pasadena. And don’t let my cats out.

Daniel: Great, any questions?

Ira: What about the weather warning, the heat alert? It’s Code Green or Red or something. They’re expecting record highs – 95 degrees and up.

Cole: The main section of climb is exposed and long and gains 4,000ft in seven miles. No stores.

Aaron: Great, can I build my bike now?

Dan: What’s your dog’s name again?

Hahn: While Aaron’s building our bikes can we talk about where we’re getting coffee in the morning?

Daniel: Did I mention that Neil Browne from Road Magazine, is going to ride with us tomorrow to see how we put the Continental rides together? And likely to hammer us.

It’s 6:30am and Cole’s house is awake but nobody is talking yet, I like that. Were it not for the distorted and unacceptably loud ‘Wilco’ coming from a Panasonic boom box in the kitchen, I could easily drift back to sleep. Between my cap and the fat on the back of my arm, I can see Cole mishandling an unusually large pink box of cinnamon sticky buns from the fridge to the oven. The site is either appetizing or disturbing and I’m not sure which. From my futon, I move only my head in the direction of the side porch. Through an open window and a dusty fan, I see Aaron, seated on an inflatable red mat, tucked into a blue down sleeping bag. He’s holding up a pink Italian Country Jersey and laughing about something – to himself. Weird. Back in the kitchen, Hahn is making coffee in a steel flower vase. Ira is crunching around Cole’s gravel driveway, fully kitted, lubed, fed and embrocated. Dan, on the back porch is fully dressed and seated on a three-foot high chicken-wire residence shared by the Beagles, one of which can jump higher than Ira. Dan’s loading film. I’m looking for a black sock with an ‘R’ on it and putting in calls to the other LA Continental rider Ben Lieberson, then to Neil from Road Magazine with our morning start plans.

In the cold light of day, on a bike at 7:55am, Cole’s driveway is still terrifyingly steep. From the bottom we begin a series of convoluted uphill turns to traverse and eventually summit Cole’s neighborhood. We’re headed for South Pasadena, the next neighborhood north and to Buster’s Coffee Shop. On the way, pavement seams fail to match by several inches, vertically and horizontally. It’s already 83 degrees and Hahn restarts his Continental-long campaign of taunting Ira. Pushing, passing and riding him. Hahn’s effort is wasted on Ira but it hits Aaron and I where it hurts, in the stomach, legs and lungs. I pant, scream and lose my cool with Hahn for replacing our last easy bit of riding with a time trial.

Hahn: Daniel, are you finished?
Ira: No, he’s never finished.

Ben is seated outside the coffee shop looking fresh, cool and expeditious in spite of the temperature, which is climbing by the minute. We roll up, hot and dripping. The coffee shop features milkshakes and savory meat and cheese filled pastries. Neil pulls up across the street, having just driven in from Long Beach. He’s quiet and easy and happy to meet us. His sock tan is intimidating. We discuss his role today, how these rides typically transpire, and what the team and the project are all about. He’s game.

At 10:30 we roll out and head east through East Pasadena and Arcadia. The streets are lined with uniformly spaced trees, mandated by the city, and expertly manicured (high-n-tight) nature-strips. Well maintained or expensively restored, we pass bungalow after villa after bungalow. Whatever was fresh or moist about the morning has burned-off completely and already it feels like midday. But traffic is light, the pace is easy and we’re all talking. Ben is 140 pounds, a competitive Cat 2 racer and climbs like a European¬–which he is if you count England as Europe – and he’s still not sweating.

40-minutes in and we give up neighborhood wending for a dusty bike path running parallel to a concrete riverbed. On our left is the river and to our right, empty fast food containers, an eight-foot high prison fence and a string of air-conditioner and satellite-dish clad town homes. Not long after, less than a mile, we pick up the San Gabriel River Path on it’s way through a vast, arid and flat San Gabriel Valley. The San Gabriel Mountains rise almost at right angles out of the sage and chaparral to the north. To the west, east and south all we see is heat rippling and warping the boarder between suburbia and industrialized nature.

Part 2 – HWY 39

It’s 12:15 and the inland heat is solid and oppressive. Highway 39 takes us quickly out of the flat, past the last few hyper-green lawn communities and into the foothills. The ride architecture is suddenly clear and familiar, twist and turn with the river, the San Gabriel, and then climb. We are no longer together. Ira and Ben stay steady with Cole, Hahn and Neil close behind. Aaron and I follow. The first real climbing of the day is a little less than four miles and takes you over the San Gabriel foothills, past a reservoir and drops you off at the base of the mountains for the next three hours of riding. Traffic is light and the edge of the road is level, clear and smooth. The turns are painfully long and exaggerated, the grade is easy but sneakily demanding.

Aaron doesn’t look so good.

Daniel: Hey Aaron, you don’t look so good.

Aaron: I don’t feel good and I’m hearing discouraging voices. ‘Military Dad’-type voices: You’re not good enough; you’ll never make it to college; get a real job. And you probably shouldn’t start cycling because you’ll be intolerably slow, that kind of thing. And I’m hot.

It’s 1:30pm and we’ve all regrouped in the parking lot of a Ranger Station, not far from where the road is closed to cars. The first thing I notice is Ben’s two untouched water bottles. His jersey is dry and he’s still wearing his helmet. I’m snorting and panting like an agility pug and dripping with sweat. Ben smiles and patiently calls to my attention the butterfly, large and colorful, stuck in my brakes. Cole comes stumbling, fresh and smiling, over a low, stone wall on the other side the road. Behind him is a deep, wooded ravine, at the bottom of which lies the river.

On my way across the road, Aaron finally comes into view, he’s alive and still turning the pedals over. My scramble across smooth, near vertical rocks down to the river isn’t easy. I’m all carbon fiber and cleats. The water is black, shaded and magical, so cold and beautiful, I think we’re about to have a religious experience. Before I can get my shoes off and my head submerged, I’m joined by Cole, who’s back for seconds, quickly followed by Aaron and Hahn. Our caps become water buckets that we dump onto our heads repeatedly.

Part 3 – Road Closed

As we get ready to roll, the parking lot is a scene of minor anxiety. A mile up the road and we’ll be on our own for seven more miles. It’s approaching 100 degrees and our entire route lies beneath a cloudless sky, fully exposed to the sun.

We pass in single file through a large, yellow gate. I’m too fat to fit through, even where it’s widest. The grade and ascent and our positions resume without variation. Ben, Ira, Cole-Hahn-Neil, Daniel and Aaron. The next four miles, ramping up and switching back relentlessly, are hell. We cross bridges spanning large chasms and our route cuts through the mountainside oblivious to what’s reasonable or sensible. The road ahead haunts us. You can see it, plain and clear, turn for turn on its entire laborious journey up the mountain.

The false summits are massive and many. They’re optical illusions or mirages and they come and go so slowly and so completely I’m starting to spit and bitch to myself. The road below is melancholic, washed out and over-exposed in the heat.

Hahn and Cole drift back to me.

Hahn: Where’s Aaron?

Daniel: He’s coming, I think he’s starting to really pop, though. He’s sinking a bit. Is Cole smiling?

Hahn: I think so.

I leave them. I have to keep moving. My last image is of Cole and Hahn yelling to Aaron down a seventy-foot cliff at the top of a quarter-mile of switchback. Cole tosses a Clif Bar down to Aaron. The next three miles are a sweaty haze. As the road climbs again it intersects with the river periodically, creating pockets of pale-green vegetation. Otherwise, it’s a mix of pines and Paleolithic-looking cactus. Spiky, angular, vertical, furry. The mountain shows infinite variations of the same theme – rocky, dry, steep and sparingly green.

We regroup where the road splits. The path to the right ends after a three-mile climb to Crystal Lake, a location rumored, falsely, to have been used in the filming of Friday the 13th. Left, our route, continues for four more miles to Angeles Forest Highway. Ira, Neil, Ben and I talk in the shade.

Ira: Did you guys stop to fill your bottles at the falls?

Daniel: What falls?

Ira: Dude, you need to stop wearing your headphones.

Ben (who isn’t yet sweating and is still wearing his helmet): No, I’m good. I still have bottle left.

Neil: I think I’m starting to hurt.

First Cole, then Hahn, and eventually Aaron appear around the corner and pull up. We’re all out, or almost out, of water and food. The cracks are visible.

Aaron: I’ve never been so deep in that pain cave. I almost stopped on the side of the road to call my wife and cry.

Cole: I lost my hat in the falls. I tried to dip it in quick to fill-up but it just took off. I wanted to scramble around and get it but that sucker was moving too fast.

Daniel: What falls, where were the falls?

Ben: The next five miles mostly rolls, we can stay tight and pace line it together.

When we get back to it, it soon becomes apparent that by ‘roll’, Ben means “climb”, and by “pace line”, he means “ride right behind me if you can”. The road is narrow and covered in gravel and rocks. On the left side it drops precipitously into a steep, miles-wide valley with no visible bottom. On our right, a rocky hillside alternates between vertical, near-vertical and over-hanging. It’s obvious at this point why the road has been closed to cars for years and why it may never reopen. The mountain is reclaiming anything level with landslides, avalanches and erosion. Our ride has become a dry, wobbly death march, as we pick lines through the rubble. Neil is really starting to fade now, getting closer with every pitch and turn. Ira and Ben are, presumably, in a parking lot at the top. Hahn and I round another corner to see Neil and Cole leaning their bikes against a fallen tree. Snowmelt is spilling onto the road, pooling, running and evaporating. Black, discolored pavement never looked so promising. Cole is first to run up the tree roots and rocks to fill his bottle where the snow is thickest and the water fastest. I’m apprehensive about the purity, or at least about it’s lack of giardia. But I’ve also been riding for an hour with empty water bottles and the worst cotton-mouth ever. I decide to hustle up the bramble to the source. Bottles are thrown up empty and returned full of dubious glacial water.

Part 4 – Cloudburst

Energized by the liquid and the sense that we are close, Hahn, Cole and I race to the top of the climb. Aaron and Neil follow a few minutes later. In the parking lot at the top, Aaron immediately stuffs himself under the van and falls asleep within minutes. The rest of us find shade to eat and drink. The space between us is filled with gallon jugs of water, Cokes, Fig Newtons, bags of nuts, apples and hunks of bread. It’s an orgy of calories. The wind off the desert to the north is dry and cold and within minutes of narrowly avoiding spontaneous combustion, we’re zipping up and digging out vests and arm warmers. Aaron continues to sleep under the shade of the van.

Hahn: Is anyone else going to bring it up, the Aaron thing? I don’t think it’s good that he’s able to make REM sleep so soon after that climb. He might be broken.

Neil: That’s it, I’m done, I’m cooked I’m packing it in.

Ira: I thought we were talking about Aaron?

Neil: I think I might get out for the descent but otherwise…

Cole: Aaron’s fine, he’s just sleeping off a light case of heatstroke.

Angeles Forest Highway starts with a massive tunnel and miles of rolling roads. The road we came up, closed to cars, dead-ends on the road we are on. The road we are on ends a few miles past where we joined it. We effectively own an empty, epic road on top of the world. At one point Aaron and I, only a few feet apart and descending at 35mph, round a corner into a headwind. We’re blown across the road together and stuffed into 14mph within seconds. When it’s safe to look up we burst into laughter, the glad-to-be-alive variety. Eventually, the road starts to climb, with fewer reciprocal descents as we approach Cloudburst Summit. We pass two ski resorts, Waterman and Snowcrest. On the other side of Cloudburst, my cyclometer doesn’t dip below 35mph for 25-minutes, and several times I hit 48mph plus for minutes at time. The field, led by Ben and Ira, is all over the place. I drop Hahn on the last major-ish climb before our final descent, a 15-mile run into Pasadena. Hahn flats but decides to ride it out to the top, where we’re all waiting at RedBox Ranger Station. Cole blows by us and heads straight down, like a horse making for the stable. Aaron almost does the same but we catch him.

Part 5 – HWY 2

The descent is a twisting, undulating fast-paced affair, rich with ridiculous top speeds and exhilarating, banking turns. It’s also gorgeous, as the last 30-miles have been, with views the of the surrounding mountains and the desert to the east. As we get closer, glimpses of Los Angeles appear, the arcing coastline behind it.

A quarter of the way down after vying, teary-eyed, for what felt like an hour, we hit one last quarter-mile incline on the way to Clear Creek. Ben and Ira drop me so I hang back for Aaron and Hahn. I know something’s wrong when they don’t quickly show but we’re too close to real food and air conditioning so I press on. I look up at some point, along the last stretch into town, when a metallic blue Suzuki Samurai drives by with Hahn’s face pressed against the passenger-side window – from the inside. He rolls it down.

Daniel: Ah….

Hahn: Not more than five minutes into that big plummet at the top I flatted again. Aaron waited and then this guy, Gary (the car’s driver), came along.

Daniel: So you didn’t get to ride down that hill then?

Hahn: I would have thought that was obvious.

We regroup at the Chevron station at the bottom of the hill and our point of re-entry into civilization, the first we’ve seen of it in five hours. Plans are made to eat at an Italian place owned by a cyclist friend of Cole’s. Aaron shows up finally, the last man down. He’s angry and wants ice cream. He rides across the street to a market to make it happen, while Cole fixes a flat. Now that we’re back in the foothills, back in the valley, it’s hot again. Cole’s pick for dinner means a windy, dusty eight-mile ride across town and I bonk three minutes into it.

Part 6 – Route Description

Head east on mostly residential streets through Pasadena, East Pasadena and Arcadia for several miles on the way to the San Gabriel River Path.

To the left of the path is the river and to the right, an eight-foot high prison fence and a string of air-conditioner and satellite-dish clad town homes. Not long after, less than a mile, pick up a second section of path on its way through a vast, arid and flat San Gabriel Valley. The San Gabriel Mountains rise almost at right angles out of the sage and chaparral to the north.

Highway 39 takes you quickly out of the flat, past the last few hyper-green lawn communities and into the foothills. The ride architecture is suddenly clear and familiar, twist and turn with the river, the San Gabriel, and then climb up the foothills and past a reservoir. This first climb, to the gate behind which the road continues to be closed to cars, is four miles long and runs parallel to a river.

The crux of the ride begins past the gate, where the road gains 4,000ft in seven miles. There are no services or water or food for the next 25 miles. The climb ramps up and switches back relentlessly. The road crosses bridges spanning large chasms and cuts through the mountainside oblivious to what’s reasonable or sensible. The false summits are massive and many. As the road climbs it intersects with the river periodically, creating pockets of pale-green vegetation. Otherwise, it’s a mix of pines and Paleolithic-looking cactus. Spiky, angular, vertical, furry. The mountain shows infinite variations of the same theme – rocky, dry, steep and sparingly green

The next section, just past the turn-off for Crystal Lake, itself a six-mile out-and-back, is four miles long. The road here is narrow and covered in gravel and rocks. On the left side it drops precipitously into a steep, miles-wide valley with no visible bottom. On our right, a rocky hillside alternates between vertical, near-vertical and over-hanging. It’s obvious at this point why the road has been closed to cars for years and why it may never reopen. The mountain is reclaiming anything level with landslides, avalanches and erosion.

Through a gate at the top, Angeles Forest Highway starts with a long tunnel and miles of rolling roads. Eventually, the road starts to climb, with fewer reciprocal descents as you approach Cloudburst Summit. On the way, you pass two ski resorts, Waterman and Snow Crest. On the other side of Cloudburst is a seemingly endless descent interrupted in only in two spots: the Redbox climb and the turn-off for Mt. Wilson; and again for a quarter mile, up to Clear Creek Ranger Station.

The descent is a twisting, undulating fast-paced affair, rich with ridiculous top speeds and exhilarating, banking turns. It’s also gorgeous, with views the of the surrounding mountains and the desert to the east. As you get closer to the final plummet into Pasadena, glimpses of Los Angeles appear with the arcing coastline behind it.

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