Photos by Locutus.
Well, it's only a few days before I'm off to France with Yellow Jersey Tours. Only six days until I duel Mount Ventoux and begin
my slog through the Alps. Ah, yes, there's nothing like fear of a big mountain to get you out on your bike and riding up big mountains.
A few days before the Tour de France began, I headed up to the Santa Barbara area again to tackle some more of the climbs that Lance Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service squad rode
over during their early season training camp. Thinking back to the riders I interviewed, all of them were shaking their heads over one ride in particular: the slog up Figueroa Mountain Road.
Beginning at Los Olivos on highway 152, Figueroa Mountain Road heads through some beautiful grassland that suddenly turns nasty as it heads up some deceptive hills.
The early section of Figueroa Mountain Road.
George Hincapie had shaken his head and said that Figueroa was tough, like
Gibraltar. Michael Creed had grumbled
quietly that it was a horrible experience. So of course, I decided that it was the perfect place to prepare for Ventoux and the Alpe d'Huez. My wife and sister-in-law dropped me off at the
beginning of the road and went off to visit a local lavender farm, leaving me to my manly misery.
Well, Figueroa begins with about seven miles of false flat: it looked like I should just be flying along, but a quick glimpse down at my computer and a mental check of the pain
in my legs told me that no, I was slowly going uphill. Now I'm not sure about how you feel regarding false flats, but I despise them. Maybe it's because they are
false - they are a little hill
in disguise, trying to pass themselves off as paved cow pasture just to mess with your head. I like my mountains craggy and honest, looming above me majestically. I should have taken my
cue from this introductory stretch of road and prepared myself for the psychological damage to come, but no, I had to let my mind wander off to Michael Jackson. Yeah, that Michael
Jackson, the erstwhile King of Pop. The reason was simple: somewhere along Figueroa Mountain Road is the turnoff to Jackson's infamous and world-renowned Neverland Ranch.
As I was
tooling along in my Saeco kit cursing the insidious (but still minor) slope, a friendly car full of elderly Germans slowed enough to roll down their window and ask, "Ees Nefferlan Ranch up
dees road? Michael Jackson, yes?" I smiled and nodded: "Yeah, I know it's up this road somewhere." A friend of mine at CNN had told me it was here when he found out I was going to be
riding it. Unfortunately, he didn't tell me that it was unmarked; for some reason, I was expecting to see purple giraffes stampeding past a large, neon gate. I had even planned to stop and take
a picture for this article on the descent, but I never found it. I don't think the Germans found it either, because they gave me the evil eye when they came back down the road that seemed to
blame me not only for their lack of success, but also for the fire-bombing of Dresden and Jan Ullrich taking ecstasy in that nightclub a few years back.
So while I was pondering taking off one of my cycling gloves as a mocking tribute to Mr. Jackson, the false flat gave way to what I can only call a wall. Where this wall came from, I
can't say: all of the sudden, there it was, looming over my like some kind of Lord of the Rings villain that had sprung from the very Earth itself to smite me. I'd have taken a picture of this
wall, but it was too fast: in the space of about 100 yards, I had to go from my 52x21 gear to my 39x28 gear (if you don't know gear ratios, just know that this is very, very sad). I was
desperately pulling on my handlebars, rolling my shoulders, waggling back and forth across the road, and cursing about how much I'd hated the album "Bad." There was no time for
pictures, as letting go of the handlebars would mean tipping over in a heap and, most likely, getting run over by German tourists. No, I had to just grit my teeth and keep the pedals
The road once it leveled off a little and I was able to grab my
camera for a picture.
Figueroa is a very steep climb. There are some sections where it lets up and you can recover for a bit, but those sections don't seem to be nearly plentiful enough when you're riding it. It
was also pretty darned hot, but that wasn't really the bad part. The bad part was that the climb was deceptive. Just like the false flats, the steeper sections didn't look that tough. A lot of the
time, I was riding alongside golden fields with grazing cows - the "mountain" I was on looked like just a minor bump in the road. Unfortunately, some of the cows seemed to be grazing
uphill at a faster clip than I was riding. Ten miles into the ride, and three miles into the serious climbing, I began to despair: I knew that Figueroa went back twenty miles, and as I was
dying on those steep sections, I kept on thinking, "There's ten more miles of this crap?" Mercifully, while the climb never got easy, it did level off a tad. The strange thing is that the more
mountainous and difficult the terrain looked, the easier the climb got.
It looks harder, but it's getting easier.
Of course that didn't start to happen until about mile twelve. Once I got past the ranger station, things seemed easier and I was able to push a bigger gear. I also got some good omens
from the animal kingdom: whereas I had encountered an over-interested vulture on my ride up
Gibraltar, on Figueroa I saw three female deer that watched me for a moment, and then bolted.
Apparently, the animal world had stopped viewing me as carrion and now considered me a predator. That was a step up. At seventeen miles into the ride, I was surrounded by forest, the
road was single-lane, and there were only two clear strips of pavement where tires would roll
through; the rest was covered with rocks and pine needles.
Into the forest, where the road gets worse and worse.
Finally, the road was getting too sketchy, and I decided to turn around and head home. I've come to notice that I never get a good idea of how steep a climb is until I descend it. Up
until my descent of Figueroa, I was thinking that maybe I was having a bad day. Sure, the Postal guys thought it was tough, but it didn't look like much. Then, rolling through one of
those sections that just looked like a lane through a field, I peeked down at my speedometer and noticed that I was cruising at over 40mph, and I was kinda riding the brakes. Yeah, okay,
this climb really was that freakin' steep. And the roads had lots of fun corners and decent pavement. Going downhill on that road was a blast, well worth the pain of the ascent.
At the bottom of the climb, I had a smile on my face a mile wide. But then the animal kingdom came back again to menace me: I had to brake because a long line of cattle was crossing
the road. I came to a stop about thirty feet from the cows, and then noticed that a bull had lowered its head and was keeping an eye on me. Behind me was the wall: if that bull charged me, I
was screwed. Then I looked down. Oh yeah, I was in my bright red Saeco kit. "Don't move," I thought. Then I thought, "maybe it's a steer, and not a bull." Either way, though, the thing
still had horns, and it was looking at me. Here I was, stuck between a bull/steer and a wall. I held my ground, though, because it would take that damned thing charging me to get me to
ride my bike up that wall again.
The cattle crossing...
There was finally a good break in the line, and I crammed by camera back into my pocket, clipped in, and got the hell out of there. The next day I went up the Old San Marcos/Painted
Cave climb (6.5 steep miles) and back up Gibraltar (over 8 miles). At the top of
Gibraltar, I thought, "Okay, I'm ready." I wanted to thump my chest, to cry out a mighty challenge to Mont
Ventoux. But then I realized that Ventoux might hear me, so I kept my mouth shut and cruised home to take a nap.