California - via the mountains (Part 1)

Updated: Feb 6, 2020

So, me and my Virgin colleagues set forth on another cycling adventure. This time, we set out to ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles via Truckee, Lake Tahoe, Bridgeport, Bishop, Lone Pine, Death Valley, Ridgecrest, Mojave and Malibu. Unlike the coastal route, this was to be via the Sierra mountain range, spending four days above 4000', and hitting a maximum of 8400' over Monitor Pass. October brings fantastic weather to the Sierras, but at those high altitudes the mornings are very cold, yet in Death Valley we could expect temperatures in the mid-thirties. Packing was not easy!

San Francisco Mist
Leaving San Francisco

Prior to the ride proper starting, we had to rebuild our bikes. My Richey Break-Away fits in a case that's little bigger than a normal suitcase, but the downside is it needs more deconstruction and reconstruction than a normal bike, so a test ride was essential before we set off on the 800 or so km planned for the week. The test ride was a circumnavigation of the city, taking in many famous sites and sights. As those of you who are avid 70s movie watchers will know, SF is hilly in parts, and we hit some very un-Suffolk like gradients around this ride!

Virgin group in front of Golden Gate bridge
Prior to crossing the Golden Gate bridge.

Day 1 of the ride proper was a gentle introduction, which took us about 30km across the Golden Gate bridge, through Sausalito and on to Tiburon. There, we boarded our support vehicles for a transit up into the mountains and a change of climate at Truckee, just north of Lake Tahoe. After a good group meal out and a few craft beers in the microbrewery next door to the hotel, we repaired to bed to anticipate a cold morning's ride the next day.

Day 2 began at some ridiculous hour, and the temperature - as promised - was well below zero. We set off into the dawn through the gorgeous valley that connects Truckee to the north-western coast of Lake Tahoe. Much of this part of the route was on a lovely off-road cycle path next to an alpine river; a stark contrast to the roads we'd encounter later in the trip.

Riding alongside the Truckee River
Riding alongside the Truckee River.

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe
Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe.

Halfway or so through the day, our route joined the west coast of the stunningly beautiful Lake Tahoe. A couple of steep climbs took us to the road that overlooks Emerald Bay, possibly the most photogenic location on the whole lake. This is where we had lunch, and by now the temperature - as long as you were in the sun - was very pleasant.

After lunch, we enjoyed the fabulous descent into the town of South Lake Tahoe. Some 'enjoyed' swimming in the very chilly lake. Others, more sensible, found a live music bar which had a huge firepit which made sitting outside in the late afternoon very civilised!

Day 3 dawned with our lowest temperature of the whole ride - minus 7 degrees. This was to be the hardest day too, with the route climbing Luther Pass before heading to the highest point we'd climb, Monitor Pass at over 8400' above sea level. These climbs averaged around 7-8% gradient, with many pitches at 15% or more. The scenery was stunning; we were surrounded by many peaks over 10,000ft high, and a few considerably higher. Our group was of very mixed abilities, and Monitor Pass proved too much for many. Fortunately, our excellent hosts from Black Sheep Adventures had organised a shuttle to move exhausted riders to the top, where lunch was awaiting us, prepared by our brilliant support crew of Virgin staff.

Heading up to Monitor Pass
Heading up to Monitor Pass

The descent from Monitor Pass was great fun, but some of us were a little surprised to find Seamus, one of our American colleagues, coming back up the pass from the other side. He's planning to do the Death Ride next summer, which involves climbing both sides of Monitor Pass plus three others in a day, so he thought he'd get some practice in. Nutter.

The route from Monitor to our night stop at Bridgeport involved a further 80-odd km of riding, much of it on Highway 395, and through a few more climbs, for a total of around 155km for the day. We had a cutoff time on the road of 5:30pm, in order that everyone would make dinner together, and more than a few of us ended up in the Broom Wagon!

Day 4 saw a slightly later and more civilised start, though still bloody cold. This was to be the longest day at 168km, with one serious climb at the beginning to Conway Pass, then a relatively gently rolling ride, mostly on the 395, to Bishop. The descent from Conway Pass took us past Mono Lake, a very distinctive saltwater lake.

Mono Lake from Conway Pass
Mono Lake from Conway Pass

The route continued southward. By now, the terrain had become more open, and distinctly brown and barren. We're not far from the desert now, and it shows. However, there was one more little surprise on today's route; a loop off the 395 to June Lake. This loop takes you straight back into Alpine-style terrain, forested, steep-sided valleys, lakes and (dammit) climbs. The lunch stop was beside June Lake itself, which is an absolutely beautiful spot. From there, it was a simple(!) thrash down the 395 to Bishop, with another diversion off the highway for a last steep little climb and an absolutely epic descent back to the plain, to the hotel, dinner, and bed.

Grant Lake, on the June Lake loop
Grant Lake, on the June Lake loop

Lunch at June Lake.
Lunch at June Lake.

To be continued....

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I did a blog here a couple of years ago. I documented some epic rides I was privileged to be a part of. No-one read any of it. Ok, that's fine. But now there are a few more people signing up as member