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02.13.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Alastair Bland
Climbing Giants: The author, his face carefully cropped out, displays his home-grading system.

Haunted by Hills

One Surly rider scoffs at Trinity Road: a vertical love poem

By Alastair Bland


I was born at sea level, and I am still just several feet above the sea. It's not like I've never been anywhere, for my life has been full of ups and downs. Hills, I mean. I hunger for them, and the steeper the slope, the tastier. I helplessly crave hills. Living in San Francisco, my hunger is easily satisfied. I log about four vertical miles of climbing each week without going more than three miles from my front door.

As a connoisseur of all things that go up, I take a natural interest in other cyclists and their own relationship with hills. And though I haven't met one yet, the idea of another rider stronger than I am troubles me deeply.

Thus, when it comes time again for all those Euro riders and that guy from Santa Rosa to come gaggling over from the prologue in Palo Alto, huffing and puffing and raising a fuss over their Tour of California, I just can't help bristling my fur, especially when they get to talking about the climb over Trinity Road, that itty-bitty little hump north of Glen Ellen.

The newspapers will discuss, inevitably, how the cyclists destroyed the Santa Rosa-Sacramento stage, and how the pack of athletes started their ride to the capital by sailing over the "seemingly endless," the "grueling," the "vertical" Trinity Road.

Frankly, I can't stand it.

So this year, amidst all the hoopla over the tour and that little grade that all the riders seem so afraid of, I decided to get out there, and even conduct a little science while I was at it. I wanted to see precisely how steep and formidable Trinity Road actually is and compare it to a few of the other Bay Area slopes I ride most days. My suspicion was that the feared hill is an easy one, highly overrated and not really very steep at all.

A responsible scientist, of course, never approaches an experiment bearing an agenda, prejudice or opinion—but I do. To verify my theory that Trinity Road is a sissy bump in the road, I mounted a large wooden protractor to the frame of my Surly Crosscheck and fixed a dangling plumb bob from the midpoint of the instrument. With this simple contraption, I would be able to take precise measurements of the slope beneath my wheels with hardly more than a glance.

Loading my wicker handlebar basket with basic bike tools, a notebook, aviator sunglasses, some organic dried figs and a North Coast Russian Imperial Stout, which I never ride without, I conducted my research expedition two Saturdays ago. I rideshared to Sonoma, then rode the seven miles north along Highway 12 to the intersection of Trinity Road, turned right and began my experiment.

The road impressed me. Indeed, it impressed with its gentle, easy grade, fit for any half-assed weekend rider wearing a pair of Spandex shorts.

"Why, 12th Avenue is steeper than this hill!" I exclaimed halfway up, referring to my own San Francisco street.

At two particularly steep slants, I hopped off the bike to take protractor readings. Neither exceeded 8.5 degrees—a mild 15 percent grade; in other words, 15 feet up for every 100 feet forward. I reached the top, the fire station at Cavedale Road, in about 21 minutes. The pros could have beaten that time by half, but they have several advantages: 14-pound bikes, no U-lock and no protractor or plumb bob. Their beer is in the support vehicle, as are their figs, notebook and bike tools.

Down the other side I went. It is steeper than the west slope, and I braked hard all the way down on the wet asphalt. I stopped in the forest on what was apparently the sharpest slope, and found it to be 10 degrees, a 17 percent grade. At the bottom, at the bridge over Dry Creek, I turned around and charged back up again. I feverishly wished for a team of semi-pros in Spandex, sucking on their corn-syrup, power-gel goop and staring down the world through their orange-tinted goggles to pass as they chugged weakly up the slope. After all, heaven hath no pleasure like sailing past a team of young urban professionals when your bike weighs 25 pounds and carries a wicker basket on the handlebars.

But the weather was poor, all the rich boys had stayed home and I was alone to entertain my fantasies. I reached the top in 16 minutes, and just like that my experiment was over, the great mountain conquered, the sky kissed. I'd been defrauded.

All my measurements were taken—they were unimpressive—there were no other cyclists to humiliate and I'd hardly broken a sweat. So I took my Surly on up Cavedale Road another few hundred vertical feet to drink my Imperial Stout on a log beneath a large oak. I savored the heavy oatmeal-and-toffee essence and absorbed the calories and the warmth of the alcohol. I descended to Highway 12 again and turned back and rode up to the fire station once more, wondering if perhaps last time I'd slept through the most slanted segment. But no: every foot of the way smelled of wimps, weekend riders, Subaru roof racks, blinding Genentech jerseys, energy bars and Gatorade.

Back in my apartment, I analyzed the data. West slope of Trinity Road: 3.2 miles with an estimated average grade of 5 degrees, or about 8 percent, equaling a climb of approximately 1,350 feet times two. The east slope: 2.5 miles from the beginning of the descent, with an estimated average grade of 7 degrees, or 12 percent, equaling a climb of approximately 1,000 feet. Cavedale to the summit: about two miles, nothing beyond 8 degrees by my protractor. Gain of 500 feet. For the day, 4,200 feet total gain over 10.9 miles of ascent. An average grade of 7.3 percent. Hmm.

The next day I scouted the Marin Headlands with my bike and instruments. I found several streets in residential Sausalito that reached over a 20 percent grade. The long ride up from Bridgeway to the peak of the Headlands overlook is 826 vertical feet, but in the course of 3.5 miles it boasts a mere 4.5 percent average slant. In San Francisco dwell the real monsters. There, I measured the steepest hills I could find. Seventeenth Street coming out of the Castro (not actually very steep, but a well-known yardstick): 17.5 percent; 14th Avenue between Quintara and Rivera: 21 percent; Dalewood Street on Mount Davidson: 25 percent; Duncan Street between Diamond and Douglass: 28.5 percent. And the most prohibitively steep slope I've ever gone up, the very southernmost block of Stanyan above Cole Valley? A staggering 33.5 percent.

Trinity Road was not half as steep. I could have ascended it drunk on one leg while sending a text message.

But what's a hill even worth in the end? At the finish line of this meandering race that we call life, even the biggest mountain cancels out to zero, glory had and just as soon forgotten. At 29, I'm too old to be much of a cyclist anymore, though I often stay out riding and climbing until late in the day. Then, in the cool of the evening, after most of the other cyclists have returned home, I'm left alone with just the sound of the hilltop sirens calling me upward—and the hope that my chain won't snap.

I know that somewhere out there is a regal 35 percent grade, and a road runs up it. Alongside are the footprints of the poor saps who had to push their bikes to the summit, and beside them are the treads of one Surly with a basket that bullies past them all. Though I will never get off to walk, I can still never reach the top.

I am haunted by hills.


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