What's Cool In Road Cycling

Top Ride: The Dirty Devil!

On an early March day this year Robert Panzera headed out into the spectacular countryside of San Diego County, California for a recon of the famous Dirty Devil Ultra Century Ride. This unique ride takes in 28 miles of packed dirt roads, amazing scenery, 11,000 feet of ascent (3,350 m) and makes for a perfect – and yet challenging ride.

by Robert Panzera with additional photos from Bernd Straehle and John Clare.

Years ago many of the roads that are used for The Dirty Devil were seldom traversed by those on road bikes. Most did not do that type of riding with the skinny tires, but saved those adventures for bikes with fatter tires and maybe a bit of suspension. But alas, we’ve moved into the time of the gravel grinder, and riding road bikes and beefier approximations of road bikes on the unpaved backgrounds is all the rage.



I was introduced to the dirt roads of San Diego the year I moved here in 2005 by a good friend who, like me, was in the mood for all day wandering adventures. We explored many of the dirt roads, which would later be stitched together to form the current course of The Dirty Devil. The dirt roads of The Dirty Devil are improved and graded to varying degrees, but depending on the year, the weather during the winter, and the unknown grading schedules, these roads are in various states of condition when you traverse them via road bike.


The full tilt version of The Dirty Devil course is 127 miles (205 km) with over 11,000 feet of ascent (3,350 m) and conquers 3 dirt roads, or sectors, to use the parlance of the famed Paris-Roubaix. The 3 sectors come to a combined distance of 28 miles (45 km) of packed dirt roads. With the mileage, climbing, and dirt sectors that have a bit of sustained downhill, The Dirty Devil is the hardest ultra century I’ve ridden in the United States. My legs tell me so every time I reach the end of Boulder Creek knowing I still have 100 miles and another extended dirt sector in my future.

There is a shorter mileage version, which indeed is extremely challenging at 84 miles (135 km) with over 7,500 feet of ascent (2,300 m) and conquers 2 dirt sectors totaling 17 miles (27 km). This shorter version has brought many to their knees as well, thinking they were sneaking their way out of the longer version to a less punishing feat.

The goal of the event organizer, CCSD, is not punish those that attend, but to challenge them. Not only physically, in terms of the route, but spiritually in the pursuit of the quietude that they always experience when riding such San Diego treasures as our fine unpaved back roads. The paved roads along the route alone take some of the most scenic byways available in the county, but it’s the individual nature of each of the dirt sectors, which brings a sense of wonder to my heart. There are some who will not even stop for the scenery, but will work towards conquering the route “contre la montre” style For those, the KOM and QOM prizes for fastest times on the the uphill sections of each dirt sector and fastest overall times for the combined portions of all uphill dirt sectors, are reserved at the official Dirty Devil.


The Start
To recon the course for 2015, I rolled from the official start in Alpine, CA, about 30 miles (48 km) from central San Diego. This small town is an ideal start location: close enough to San Diego to drive to the start, but just far enough out not to have to ride in any heavy vehicular traffic. When I ride the course, I usually stay at the Alpine Ayres Inn the night before, so I can wake up bright and early and have the start right outside my door.

The official ride starts off at 7am for both routes, and even though I like to start later on my own and the air had a bit of chill in it, I chose to honor that tradition knowing I could be facing 9 hours on the road for the day. Climbing began right out of the gate as I worked my way through the town of Alpine toward the first dirt sector of Viejas Grade. This ride is no gimme, and the early climbing is a fair warning shot to those who have hugged the flatter Southern California coast for the bulk of their training mileage.

Viejas Grade: Dirt Sector Number 1
After working my way up the canyon carved long ago by other wooden wheeled travelers, the course moves north into the lands governed by the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. This gateway to Viejas Grade is covered by beautiful pastureland, roaming cattle, and panoramic views of the valley. I can see in the distance Viejas Grade proper, winding its way up the side of the canyon toward Descanso.



Viejas Grade is ~4 miles (~6.5 km) of packed dirt with a starting elevation of 2498 feet (761 m) and finishing elevation of 3662 feet (1116 m). Total elevation gain is 1164 feet (355 m) with an average grade of 5.7% and steepest grade of 7%. A nice, usually evenly-graded, power climb that may lull some into a sense of complacency about what is to come, and may tempt others to go a bit too hard too early when their legs, energy levels, and dreams are fresh. Like cobble riders from across the sea, riding the crown of the road is key here, to stay out of the sandy sections on the side of the road.

When I reached this dirt sector in the early hours of the morning, I started to climb above the lingering fog in Alpine and began to break through to open air and clearer skys. The clouds were lying below blanketing over areas of Alpine and out to the Pacific Ocean, which is sometimes visible on totally clear mornings. Winds were low, but increased a bit to a breeze as I neared the top of the climb. Those chasing KOMs/QOMs may miss looking to the right as they scale the side of the canyon, thereby missing the views of the Viejas valley below and the low slung mountains which hug the coast and protect it from the desert. But I ensured an even and tolerable pace, because the view is worth a look along with experiencing the peacefulness.

Here’s a pic from when I reconned the route another time with other intrepid adventurers.

Boulder Creek: Dirt Sector Number 2
After cresting Viejas Grade, I had an easy descent on a quick snippet of packed dirt for a quarter mile or so, and then back on paved roads. The bike, even though it has only tasted the lightest of dirt roads on offer at The Dirty Devil, felt much lighter and smoother as rubber met asphalt.

A quick wind through the hills above Descanso and Oak Grove and then on to Boulder Creek, which first serves up a nice few miles of well maintained pavement with some twisty quick descents followed by short, sharp shocks of climbs that could sap the legs of the overly ambitious. Smart riders will start to ride within themselves even before they glimpse this dirt sector as it approaches in the distance under the shadow of one of the higher local mountains, Cuyamaca Peak. One minute I was slipping past ranches with sleepy occupants, and the next I saw the sign “Pavement Ends in 300 feet” as I rounded a corner, catching a view of the first climb of Boulder Creek as it slithers across the canyon edge just below Cuyamaca Peak.



Boulder Creek is ~13 miles (21 km) of packed dirt, with patches of washboard and gravel, with a starting elevation of 3576 feet (1089 m) and finishing elevation of 3673 feet (1120 m). Total elevation gain is 1456 feet (444 m) with an average grade is 4.7% and a steepest grade of 11%. These numbers are deceiving though, because among the 13 miles are the first climb of about 1.5 miles, a ~6 mile descent with 1359 feet elevation loss on loose dirt that pitches to over 11% downhill, and ~4.5 mile finishing climb that reports pitches of 11% on loose dirt in some places, but may reach 15% in actuality. This is a road to be respected, especially since it falls within the first 30 miles of a 127 mile route.

After the first short and tolerable climb with sweeping vistas into the valley below, I started descending on a variety of road finishes: some nicely packed dirt, some washboard, a few loose corners, scattered bits of gravel. This should not turn off the intrepid cyclist though, because many have handled these conditions with panache on skinny tires and carbon rims. Others though, opt for slightly fatter tires in the 700x25x or 700x28c range for the course, or even cyclocross bikes or mountain bikes with slicks for this sector alone.

I was riding my Holland Exogrid road bike with 700x25s and found the descent very manageable. I stayed focused, looked ahead for good lines, and kept my speed in check. My hands were a bit fatigued from braking and guiding the bike through the descent, but it was not an issue.


After crossing the arroyo—a dry creek that temporarily or seasonally fills and flows after sufficient rain—at the bottom of the descent, I began the Boulder Creek climb proper. I saw a couple of cars searching for the hiking trailhead for Three Sisters Falls, but mainly it was just me, the crunch of the dirt beneath my pneumatic tires, and a coyote sighting. I’ve also seen bobcat, deer, road runners, and tarantula out on this course at various times of the year. I’ve heard of mountain lion sightings as well.

Out of Boulder Creek and Into The Santa Ysabel and Ramona Valleys
During Dirty Devil, the support station at the end of the Boulder Creek dirt sector is a place of many rider moods. Usually the earlier riders are excited, happy, full of energy, and only buzz in and out to grab more nutrition for the long stretch of winding hilly paved-road riding ahead. As time passes though, and the middle of the pack and then the back of the pack roll in, the riders moods slowly can degrade to confused and sullen. Many have taken the first 30 miles of the 127 mile route too aggressively, and they are now realizing that even though they have 100 miles ahead of them, they already feel like they’ve ridden 100 miles.

That’s not always the norm though. Many toward the back are pacing themselves valiantly, enjoying the scenery and taking pictures along the way, knowing that they are barely 25% through the event. A good pep talk here from the support staff, a bit of nutrition, and an explanation that. “Yes, no joking, you have about 30 miles of paved road that is more downhill than uphill to the next dirt sector,” bolsters some moods.


I was feeling pretty good after Boulder Creek, because I was on a decent day. I cruised the remainder of paved Boulder Creek a.k.a. Engineer’s Road a.k.a Eagle Peak Road, which is another road cycling treasure. With fun twisty tree covered descents followed by views of the Pacific Ocean to the left and views of Palomar Mountain straight ahead, one grasps the enormity of San Diego County as it peels away before your eyes. I popped out just below Julian, but no time for their famous apple pie, as I slipped downhill for a few miles through Santa Ysabel and out the Old Julian Road toward Ramona. Past pastures, ranch land, and tucked away homes, I wound my way east toward the third dirt sector. Today Mother Earth was forgiving in the late morning hours and provided me with a light tailwind through this section.


Black Canyon: Dirt Sector Number 3
Popping out in Ramona, I stopped for a water break as I skirted the east end of town on my way out to Magnolia Road, the entrance to Black Canyon. While Viejas Grade is gentle and ever so slightly inches its way up the canyon to the summit, and Boulder Creek is at times awe-spiring and majestic and other times brutal and unforgiving, Black Mountain is a nice combination of the best parts of both of the previous sectors.



Black Canyon is ~11 miles (18 km) of packed road with surface ranging from loose dirt to hard pack with a starting elevation of 1731 feet (527 m) and finishing elevation of 3297 feet (1004). Total elevation gain is 1926 feet (587) with an average grade of 4.0% and a steepest grade of 7%. This not very rarely traversed road connecting eastern Ramona with Mesa Grande, really feels like a back country adventure into the unknown. From its wide open treeless beginning to its covered canopy finish, you feel as though you’ve traveled somewhere.

After a short level ride into the canyon proper with sweeping views, a short gently graded one-lane road descent of 360 feet elevation loss began. At the bottom, I crossed a newly minted bridge, after which I began the ascent of Black Canyon. One of my favorite roads in San Diego County. It is hard to top the gentleness of the grade matched with the scenery, and the finale is coming out of the tree-covered canyon onto Mesa Grande. I saw a rattlesnake on the right side of the road through this sector. I spotted it a little late, but was well enough clear as the hard-pack line I was traversing was more toward the left.



Mesa Grande and The Hills of Julian
Many road cyclists have traversed Mesa Grande Road on their way back or out to a bigger ride to Palomar Mountain. The road serves up appetizing scenery. It’s usually greener on Mesa Grande than other parts of the county especially in early spring. Today was no different as recent rains had the grass greened-up and flowers in various states of bloom. One could almost imagine they’ve left the desert environs and slipped into a more verdant location. Cows, llamas, goats, and sheep enjoyed the fecundity of the roadside pastures as I cruised up and down the big rollers on my way to the base of the Julian hills. I was feeling a bit knackered at this point, so was glad the dirt was behind me.


I swung once more through Santa Ysabel and began the climb up to Wynola Road. The climb is forgiving in that it is paved and graded for vehicular traffic. The shoulder provides plenty of room for the wheelmen to ply their trade. As it levels for the first time in Wynola, a short swing to the left down a country road put me on a twisty gentle upward slope to backside of Julian. Rafters of wild turkeys are usually in running around int the fields and road, but not today. It was just me and my thoughts as I made my way to Julian.

A quick descent after the summit and a scoot up to the top of Banner Grade and I ended up at the east end of Julian, CA. If one wants some of the famous local apple pie, now in the official Dirty Devil course is the time! Although the route does not enter the main street of Julian, it is right there before turning south and away. Even though more riding awaits, over 80% of the ride climbing is over. I went to my favorite place for a piece of pie, of which I will not reveal, because it’s up to you to decide who has the best pie in town. Most go with the old stalwart Julian Pie Company, but the quiet and well-rounded voices sometimes beckon others to Mom’s Pies.


Back Around and Down Cuyamaca into Japatul Valley
After Julian, a slow climb up the low slung spine of the coastal range and with peeks at views of the Colorado Desert and the beautiful Anza-Borrego Desert that lies within its confines. There you are riding amongst California oaks and shrub pines to your right and a few thousand feet below on your left is the vast expanse of parched unforgiving desert. The old stage coach route was right before my eyes with quick views of Scissors Crossing.

Up around Lake Cuyamaca, an oasis amongst the high desert, up a couple hundred feet to the other side of Cuyamaca Peak which was a bit chilly this time of year, and then rapidly vanishing elevation slipped beneath the rubber of my tires on smooth twisty tarmac as I started pointing southeast and toward the finish. My body felt a sense of relief at this point, knowing that much more downhill than uphill lie ahead for me. The day was sliding away with the sun becoming more golden as I pedalled toward home. More longish descents, with some variable wind but a nice warming trend, on to the very familiar to local cyclists, Japatul Road , and then a couple of gut check climbs toward the end as I creeped back up into Alpine, CA.

The Finish
After another intrepid adventure across paved and dirt roads, oak and shrub pine, wind and calm breezes, I had returned to the start. I was a bit beleaguered, especially since the training miles have been quality but not exactly quantity up to this point of the year, so I was happy to roll into the usual finishing area. During the official Dirty Devil, you are greeted with fun, entertainment, and of course, the signature homemade finish line food to feed your belly and your soul. There’s even a quick dip in the hotel pool, but not for me today, as I was ready to change out my kit and get on my way.


Most the day had completely gone by— a day spent in the saddle with many feelings of highs and lows, but a solid sense of accomplishment. I’ve ridden this route alone, in small groups, and also with larger bunches of riders. Today I enjoyed the solo adventure best, because it was a welcome relief from desk time, emails, and smart phones.

During the official Dirty Devil hopefully the riders have cataloged mental images of the many places and small ecosystems they traversed and hopefully they paced themselves well enough to enjoy the accomplishment. For some, they may feel ragged because they flew too close to the sun by pushing too hard throughout, or for choosing an adventure that looked a bit easier on paper than real life, but many return the next year, knowing that this unique route brings about something they have not felt since they were kids— a day with friends away from home and filled with adventure.

The Official Dirty Devil Features
• The absolute most challenging 84 mile or 127 mile cycling routes you’ve ever encountered
• Some of the most stunning scenery on hidden treasures of roads in San Diego County
• SAG stations for all routes with energy drink, water, gels, and food; The full route features 6 SAG stations + 2 additional water/ice drops
• CCSD roving on-the-bike support cycling the roads with you
• Light mechanical support enroute
• Unique finisher award
• Entertainment and homemade food at the finish
• KOM/QOM Challenge: 3 KOMs/QOMs on the longest uphill dirt sections of Viejas, Boulder, and Black Canyon

• If the beauty of this region and its roads whet your appetite for a true riding adventure you can register for The Dirty Devil here.

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