By Joseph C. (Joe) Shami
I’m still an avid cyclist, even though I’m 81 years old. To cope with my addiction, I cycle once a week from home in Lafayette to the summit of Mt Diablo, the highest peak in the San Francisco Bay Area at 3849 feet. The total distance varies from a low of 38 miles, round trip, to a high of 44 miles, depending on whether I go up Northgate in Walnut Creek or Southgate in Danville, and which one I choose to descend. The total climbing is over 4200’.
On SuperBowl Sunday, February 7. 2016, I left home at 7 a.m. to attempt Consecutive Week 399, which would make 7 years and 35 weeks without a missed week. It would be a routine day, I thought, and afterwards, I would have the pleasure of watching the much-hyped match between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers in my exhausted state. (In case you didn’t know, Denver won.)
According to all the weather forecasts, it would be a near-record 72 degrees in Levi Stadium, Santa Clara, at game time at 3:30 pm with a wind of only 10 mph. There would be similar weather and records throughout the Bay Area.
I rose at 5 a.m. and immediately checked the weather at the mountain’s summit by accessing the website:
http://mesowest.utah.edu/cgi-bin/droman/meso_base.cgi?stn=SJS02&unit=0&time=LOCAL&product=&year1=&month1=&day1=00&hour1=00&hours=&graph=0&past=0 . The current reading said that the wind was gusting to 63 mph!
Until recently, the weather station seemed to get knocked out of action if the wind gusted over 60 mph. In fact, the station was “broken” for several weeks during the recent Xmas/New Year period because a storm had interrupted the Internet connection and the software didn’t know how to recover.
I wondered if the measurement at 5 a.m. was accurate. I kept checking till I left at 7 am; the warning was consistent and dire.
I hadn’t cycled since the previous Tuesday. Furthermore, I had pulled an arm muscle last Thursday while hiking with the Sierra Club and slipping on a very muddy Selby Trail in Tilden Park. So I had been totally inactive for three days while trying to heal and was restive to get back on my bike.
It was a chilly 40 degrees when I left home, dropping to 39 at the base of Northgate. I was warmly dressed in layers and expected to feel better when the sun poked through the clouds. But although I had a cell phone, I no longer had access to the website to find out what was happening on the mountain.
When the bright, low sun finally appeared a half-hour later, it was blinding, but the temperature remained at 39 for what seemed like the longest time until after I had entered the State Park and begun my routine climb. Cyclists were passing me, as they always do – I’m the slowest climber – and I told them of the 63-mph gusts at the summit at 5 a.m. No-one changed his or her plan with that new information. Many automobiles were passing me, heading for the hike that would start at 8:30 or 9 a.m. somewhere on the mountain.
I had a thermometer on my handlebars. Suddenly, it moved from 39 to 41 and shortly thereafter to 43; then it jumped to 47 and quickly to 57. As I heated up, I stopping frequently to remove clothing – first the balaclava, then a wind breaker, then winter gloves, etc. (I was carrying a knapsack which was filling rapidly.)
Getting started again was painful each time because of my incompletely healed, left arm muscle. Cyclists and cars were passing me. It was going to be a busy day on the mountain because everyone seemed to think that the Santa Clara weather applied to Mt. Diablo too.
Then I noticed something unusual. There was a larger than normal number of cyclists and cars coming downhill to exit the mountain. It was unusual to see that at such an early time, 8:45 a.m. I attributed the cause to the SuperBowl, i.e., people had obligations for later in the day so had to finish early.
As I reached 2-1/2 road miles inside the State Park and had climbed about 700 feet, the wind became noticeably stronger on exposed turns. I had tackled gusts of up to 37 mph near the summit, so I was hoping that with the warm sun, the wind would subside to a manageable level.
It didn’t! The higher I climbed, the fiercer the wind blew! My wheels have bladed spokes, i.e., flat spokes that are wider than ordinary circular spokes. While this helps speed and cornering, it’s a liability in crosswinds, because the blades act like sails. My wheels were being buffeted; my handlebars were fighting me; I could be pushed off the side of the road. I began to cycle in the center for safety and would move over only when a car or bike wanted to pass.
I reached a familiar landmark, Diablo Ranch, at 4.65 road miles from the Northgate entrance. This private ranch is built at a protected location where the fog is usually either above or below it. Today, I had to pause there because the entrance was so exposed to the gusts.
I got a little bit further by cycling between gusts but it was getting very scary because I didn’t have control of my handlebars. Also, the stopping and starting was painful for my injured arm. I began to think that I might turn around at the Ranger Station at the Junction of Northgate and Southgate roads at 6.4 miles from the Northgate entrance. (It’s another 4.5 steeper miles from there to the summit on Summit Rd.)
I now recognized that some of the cars and cyclists who were descending were those who had passed me not too long ago.
When I reached an exposed 5.3 miles, with an altitude that I guessed to be about 1800 feet, I conceded defeat and decided to turn around. I had never done that before in the previous 398 attempts!
But descending wasn’t going to be easy either. With a huge tailwind pushing me downhill, I was moving faster than my brakes could slow me on those sharp, steep curves. Occasionally, I would have to put a foot down and pause.
While pausing, I was passed by a cyclist in an Eagle Cycling Club jersey. Earlier, I had seen him stopped uphill while I was descending. So he too had given up. He was descending slower than I would like, but I decided to follow him down at his speed. I really appreciated having human company in my tussle with nature.
We descended all the way together. The lower the altitude, the gentler the wind. Near the exit from the State Park, we chatted briefly. Then he went to retrieve his car, which was parked near the bottom of the mountain, while I continued on to my favorite sandwich shop in Walnut Creek, A Sweet Affair Bakery, where I could pause and regain my strength for the ride home. Surprisingly, the wind was not a factor in Walnut Creek or Lafayette. At most, it was 10 mph. One would never know what was happening above.
Soon after arriving home, I checked the Mt. Diablo weather website. I was genuinely surprised to learn that the wind at the summit at the time I gave up – about 9 to 9:15 a.m. – was 61 or 62 mph, gusting to as high as 73 mph. While it may have been lower at an altitude of 1800’, it was still too much for an old man on a bicycle. I wasn’t too upset with myself for not trying to continue. I live to try another day.
I have six more days in the week to try again to complete Consecutive Week 399. Despite all the effort and challenge, this ride doesn’t enter into my count. But after a night’s sleep, I had to document my unusual experience.