What's Cool In Road Cycling

Top Rides – Northern California’s Mt. Shasta

It may not have the mystique and reputation of Mt. Ventoux or the Galibier, but the climb up California’s Mt. Shasta ranks right up there with some of the top rides on the planet.

At 14,179 feet, it’s the second highest peak in the Cascade Range, and one of the top five in all of California. Shasta rises abruptly out of the surrounding countryside, magnifying its awesome height.

Poet Joaquin Miller may have put it best: “Lonely as God, and white as a winter moon, Mount Shasta starts up sudden and solitary from the heart of the great black forests of Northern California.”

Translated: This baby is gonna be a beeyotch to ride.

I was part of a group of six intrepid…or maybe just inept…cyclists, all between 50 and 60 years old, who attempted the epic climb up Shasta.

A point of clarity is needed before we go on this journey. There’s a beautiful two-lane blacktop up Mt. Shasta (the Everett Memorial Highway), but the road doesn’t go all the way to the top. It stops at the ski bowl, at an elevation of about 7,850 feet. OK, that’s more than 6,300 feet below the absolute summit of the mountain…but it’s as far as you can go on a road bike.

The route to the top begins in Mount Shasta City, a postage-stamp-sized town that hugs Interstate 5, about 300 miles north of San Francisco.

In true PEZ-fashion, we found the best place to fuel-up before a ride like this…Billy Goat’s Tavern, smack dab in the middle of town.

Gianguido Jacoli, the only true Italian in our bunch, woofed down his lunch at Billy Goat’s. Pre-ride fuel was essential. It’s a looooong way to the top, and after you leave town, there are no feed zones along the way.

Once we’d successfully mangia-ed a few thousand calories, we did a “grupo compatto,” putting our heads together to plan the attack.

The base elevation at Mount Shasta City is about 3,400 feet above sea level, and just as we start to roll out of town, it starts to rain. Nothing major, just an occasional drop or two. But it’s enough to make us aware of the consequences of our actions.

We know that if it’s 50 degrees and raining in town, it’s probably snowing up the mountain. So we all make a pact…if it’s cold and/or snowing up the hill, we won’t push on to the top. Maybe we’ll make it to “Bunny Flat” at an elevation of just under 7,000 feet.

(Credit Stan Bunger)

About two miles outside of town, you see the first sign of trouble..literally and figuratively. Snow + skinny road tires = potential trouble.

(Credit Dave Johnson)

The climb from Mount Shasta City to Bunny Flat is about 13 miles. It’s relatively easy in the opening miles, but at about mile four, it takes a pretty tough turn upward. A few pitches at around 10%, and rapidly-falling temperatures, are just enough to remind you that this is a big-boy ride. Thankfully, the PEZ kit kept me warm on the ascent.

About 45 minutes into the ride, depending on your pace, you’re totally engulfed in the forest. The good news…the trees help block the ever-present wind. The bad news…the gathering fog collects on the branches, and steadily drips on both you and the road as you climb upward.

The regular mile markers along the side of the road help remind you of how far you have to go, but it’s not the distance that matters here. It’s the elevation. All of the guys in our group live at sea level, so as we climb above the mile-high altitude, the air gets pretty thin and the climb gets a lot tougher.

We know that Bunny Flat sits at about 7,000 feet, so as the cold, drippy fog becomes worse and worse, that becomes the goal. If we can make it to Bunny Flat, to hell with reaching the end of the road today.

Needless to say, we don’t see any other cyclists on the route this day. No one is as tough…or as foolish.

At an elevation of about 6,000 feet, you start to see fewer and fewer trees. This above-the-tree-line riding reminds me of mountains and France and Italy. And honestly, with all this fog, you could be in Europe and not know it. You can’t see diddly in this pea soup.

Watching the read-out on the GPS unit is the best way to beat-back the monotony of the climb. After passing 6,500 feet, you know that Bunny Flat can’t be far…and there’s no way in hell we could climb any higher than that.

Finally, through the fog, Bunny Flat comes into view. Whew!

The sign on the side of the building says we’re at an elevation of 6,950 feet…

…while the rain-speckled GPS says 6,930 feet. OK…close enough for me.

Here’s what the climb looks like on the GPS graph. Damn!

It doesn’t feel all that cold, but the thermometer on one of our bike computers reads 28 degrees. Yep…below freezing, and damn foggy.

Riding partner Dave Johnson and I make the wise, easy choice…let’s go back to the bar at the bottom of the climb.

Good call.

As we start down the hill, my bike is acting odd. Really odd. At just 15 mph, it’s wobbling back and forth as I descend, and I think something might be frozen. I ask Dave if he’s feeling the same speed wobbles. “Speed wobbles? This slow? Nope.”

I tell him to go ahead, but as my speed increases, first to 20 and then 25 mph, the wobbles only get worse. What the hell?

Then it hits me. These aren’t speed wobbles….I’m shivering so hard that the whole bike is wobbling underneath me. Oh, great…13 miles of this until we reach the bottom.

I’ll spare you the details, but the descent down Mt. Shasta is a whole lot worse than the climb. When you climb, you generate enough heat to counteract the cold…and you’re not going all that fast either, so the wind chill is minimal. But when you’re screamin’ down this hill, you’re just freaking frozen the whole way. When your hands are this cold, it’s tough to brake…so you hang on for dear life, and know that it will be over soon.

Finally…finally…we make it back into down, and re-group at Billy Goat’s.

How bad did we feel? You can see the anguish etched on the face of poor Gianguido as he nurses his warm cup of coffee. Mi piace, Gianguido.

But after a good night’s sleep, it doesn’t seem that bad. We all feel a certain sense of pride. The pain is temporary, but the sense of accomplishment…and the stories…will live forever.

Two more recommendations for anyone who might do this ride someday. If you’re looking good for a bike shop…or like us, you just need more warm clothing…check out The Fifth Season TheFifthSeason.com in Mount Shasta City. They’ve got all the gear you’d ever need.

And at some point in your journey, you should treat yourself to a trip to the town of Weed (yup…there really is a place named Weed in California). It’s about 15 miles north of Mount Shasta City.

Weed is known for one thing…”Big D’s BBQ.” Damn, this place is great.

Ribs, tri-tip, BBQ’d chicken and pork…and the best baked beans you’ve ever had in your life.

How good is it? My pal Stan Bunger just kept shoveling Big D’s delights into his mouth…manners be damned!

The one negative…after a big-time BBQ lunch at Big D’s, you’ve still got to ride the 15 miles back to Shasta. Ugh.

But this view is worth it.

The whole trip is worth it. Along with Ventoux and the Galibier, put Mt. Shasta on the list of places you’ve got to ride before you die.

…just try to do it in the summer.

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