In all these years, I’ve never ridden Mt. Talampais on a mountain bike. For those not into history, specifically bike history, Tam is the home of the mountain bike. Sure, it’s more complicated than that, but what we all think of as mountain biking today, from equipment to the terrain that spawned the industry that followed, came from Tam in the 70s. More on that here (and yes, Lung, I can give you the film) so it’s kind of surreal to ride Tam off-road and imgine those guys int he early days retrofitting their frames and putting the big rubber on and muscling their way up the mountain. We take it for granted today. Kind of cool.
A ride, 15 years ago, that almost ended not well.
I used to do a fair amount of recreational mountain biking. I wasn’t like the local guys out here that shoot up the mountain every week, but it was the bike I road in the city and on trips, and I loved both single track and dirt road climbs. And even after I traded my mtb for my first road bike (ie. in the adult era), I still rented them on vacations and did rides when I could, such as in Arizona and the like.
Anyway, I’ve always associated the Tam ride with my road bike riding, as that’s just what I’ve always done. Shoreline to Panoramic to the Tam approach, paved, up to Ridgecrest, both peaks, then down. It’s still a great workout, and variations on it, either that route or the Alpine Dam approach, comprise most of the hardest riding I do in my back yard here in Marin. But I picked up a big ole 29er to build into an Xtracycle for kid and cargo transport, and thought to myself: self? You need to ride this as it was intended, before you hack it up… and nowhere better than Tam. So I did. I didn’t really know the route, though friends in the area gave me a general sense of it, and I just cut out of work a little early, and made a go of it. Unfortunately, it was during our recent heatwave, so I worked a lot harder than I would say, today, 35 degrees cooler just 72 hours later. Anyway, it was awesome.
It also kicked my ass! Even with all those gears, that specific gear ratio, the suspension, and a reasonably mild ride from a technical standpoint, it was work. For one thing, my bike isn’t the lightest, being on the entry level end. For another, I haven’t muscled my way up a mountain offroad since Sept. 11, 2001, so there was no muscle memory for that combination of high spinning AND the myriad little surges and pushes you do to get over broken terrain. Plus, it was effing HOT. And lastly, you know, after a full day of work, I wasn’t at my personal best by any means. And yet, it was still a memorable ride I plan to revisit soon.
I took Blithedale out until it narrowed to an unmaintained road, then hopped on the trail. The main route up largely involves Old Railroad Grade, which used to be the bed for a tourist rail system that brought people up Tam back in the day, itself something of some notoriety for being the ‘crookedest railroad in the world’…you can read more about that and the history of Tam here. I was initially disappointed when I learned it was a railroad bed, because my previous mountain riding several years ago was single track. However, it was still no joke. It was heavily rutted, bounders and ravines and rocks and slurry and steep drops down the side. It wasn’t technical enough to be outrightly dangerous to the inexperienced rider, but challenging enough and long enough to give you a go-round, regardless of fitness levels. Much like Paradise and other nearby loops, it’s one of those rides that can kick your ass at first, then become the FUN kind of workout once you’re seasoned. I love that kind of flexibility with regards to loops like that, allowing their continued enjoyment on repeat rides. So I knew going up that I was experiencing it at my general worst for this kind of thing, and that future runs would only be easier.
For the most part, the ride was just fine. I was flying along all the way up to the top of Summit Rd, through great sections of tree canopy and blocks of no coverage where the sun was very hot. I was hydrating and eating and not overdoing it, so I was approaching it the way any experienced rider on unfamiliar route/terrain would: I kept reserves and respected my ride. At the top of that, I missed the cut off to continue up the grade, so I went down quite a ways, further than I’d like thanks to some bad intel from a hiker, but then decided I was returning to Mill Valley that way, flipped it and went back up again. This time, down the other side the way I came, I found soem riders who let me tag along, and set me on the right course again before they peeled off. There are a million smaller routes and side trails you can take, even though general off-roading is banned on Tam to save the ecosystem from getting trampled to death. So after those guys were gone, I kept going alone. My only real trouble was zig-zagging going into a large raving and wrenching my left side, hand and foot, pretty badly in that maneuver, which I would then be favoring the rest of the ride, and much worse a few days later on the Primavera Metric Century later in the weekend.
Otherwise, I got as high as the West Point Inn (used to be a restaurant/shelter for people on that railroad trip, now a hiking shelter) before I got the call from home that my wife could use a hand with the kids, so I had to turn back rather than reach the East peak as intended. As it turns out, I was thisclose to getting there, and had I known that at the time I probably would have just continued to the top.
Anyway, I flew down at the measured, controlled pace for which I have been known in all my years of riding, as friends would fly past me on freefall descents, road and mountain, and sometimes crash out, on road and mountain. I gots kids! Anyway, it was a great descent. I knew of a shortcut that would have reduced the trip to 10 minutes all the way down, but it was very steep and seemed unwise so I kept at my original route until I saw a second access point to that alternate route and took that, ultimately dropping out just shy of Four Corners. At that point, I was actually thankful that I didn’t go that last bit to the peak, because my fuel ran out (OK, yeah, 3 fish tacos and a handful of peanuts was not enough for the day)… so I was bonking hard on Panoramic and all the way home, where I plowed through a beer and some peanut butter like an animal.
Word to Lung, whom I point at specifically, here, representing Team lope in the distance.
Lessons learned on this first ride up Tam the right way:
- stretch more in the upper body: unlike road riding, you rely on your arms and shoulders and upper back a lot when navigating rocky terrain, and I really just stretched legs and core out of habit. I might not have wrenched my wirst otherwise.
glorious fish tacos from FISH. Not enough.
- feed a LOT more than I did. I mean, this would apply to most any good climbing route, but I got sort of complacent about grabbing the chance to ride even if I wasn’t well fueled, as often happens on my morning or lunchtime Paradise Loops prior to eating. Up there you burn out faster, and then guess what: you’re far from home. It’s just common sense. But I had a chance to ride and took it, frankly not knowing how far up I’d make it anyway.
- Drop the diet for the climbs: I tend to use a low/no carb, lean protein diet when I’m trying to get fit, and of course, on ANY type of ride of enough duration and effort, it’s a challenge when you don’t have the carb reservoirs. I had nothing to burn on this ride. At least on event rides I break my diet and fuel up on carbs the day before and the day of. This was spontaneous enough for that not to be possible. I really wished I had that energy reserve up there.
- STAY LIMBER: my wriest wrenching was a great lesson on how easily you can jack yourself up on those jagged sections of trail.
- Lizards are awesome: I saw snakes, a tarantula, birds, a fox, and a metric ton of lizards up there, and in the latter case, I was taken back to my childhood obsession with gladhanding bluebellies. Make what you will of THAT.
- Mountain biking is pure: that’s something I used to know, but forgot over the years. I’m talking purity in the sense of being at eace, being contemplative, enjoying the sport aspect but also having some freedom from the stress of the day. I’ve clocked tens of thousands of hours on road bikes and fixed gears over the years, with a lot of that without a rider or car in sight. But being on paved roads STILL means density: cars, other riders, what have you. Plus, unexpected road condition dangers. On a mtb ride, you are equipped for uneven terrain and expecting it, and you may have other riders around sometimes, just like with hiking, but overall, you’re alone, you and nature. It’s humbling and wonderful. The smells, the sights, everything. It’s pure cycling fun. You put away he time trial brain (at least climbing) and focus on the experience. I mean, I do, anyway. There’s all sorts of competitive mtb riding appealing to any kind of rider. But for me, the lack of an SUV crowding me was the single biggest appeal.
As I said, I plan to do this more frequently, now that I know at least one route, and damn it’s easy to get to from where I am. Ridiculously so. I’ve always said I live in road biking mecca… but the same is so of mountain biking. Now in a few weeks time, my 29er will be an xtracycle. And it is planned to be running slicks. But I suspect that if I pull the kid’s seat off, and perhaps change the rubber, I could get that bad boy up. I mean, I never went into third, or granny, ring on the bike on this run, so even with the added weight of the xtracycle build, I’d have a whole ‘nuther ring to work with and the stability of that longer frame. I look for ward to finding out!