Randonnée Around The Bay

July 1-3, 2000

"So where did you start from?" A few visitors are enjoying the hazy sunset from the top of Mt. Hamilton as I pedal into the parking lot at the observatory.

"San Jose..well, actually, from Los Gatos this morning."

"And where are you headed?"

"Livermore..and then on to Martinez. I'm trying to cycle around the Bay in three days."

"Really! Well, you sure chose the long way around!"

Mt. Hamilton is the high point of my quest to circle San Francisco Bay on a solo tour. Hit each of the major peaks - Mt. Diablo, Mt. Tamalpais, and Mt. Hamilton - and sample the intervening orchards, vineyards, pastures, redwoods, and beaches. Encompass all in a short enough span to connect the dots, accentuate the contrasts, and better appreciate the remaining rural areas of this unique and diverse region.

The Greenbelt Alliance completes their annual 480-mile Go Greenbelt! tour in 7 days, but I only have the long Fourth-of-July weekend. So why not do it in 3 days (make that 76 hours in honor of Independence Day), throw in an extra climb up Mt. Diablo, and return in time for fireworks? What I hadn't figured into the schedule was the lengthy navigation time, the unseasonably blustery weather, and the logistics of lodging.

195 miles, 7600 ft climbing

Day 1: Martinez to Occidental

I begin the ride symbolically at the John Muir House in Martinez, where Muir struggled to manage the family ranch while taking jaunts in the backcountry, crafting his memorable tales, and lobbying for wilderness protection. Now we strive to nurture our backyard gardens while attempting to preserve the remaining undeveloped enclaves in a burgeoning metropolis. I hope to adopt Muir's eye for open land, as well as his proclivity for "sauntering," in contrast to the commonly staged assault on peak and destination.

The climb up Mt. Diablo hosts the usual parade of cyclists on their early morning training rides. They're racing their cyclometers to the summit and discussing how to "lighten up my bike a few ounces" for the upcoming Markleeville Death Ride. I'm hauling over 15 pounds of gear in a rack pack and debating the need for bringing camera, cell phone, and extra wool jersey. Sure doesn't feel like a saunter. I gaze in anticipation to the distant delta, where flatlands offer a reprieve from the additional burden.

Montezuma Hills
Montezuma Hills

In Brentwood newly planted saplings in an orchard sprout next to stacks of bricks for a new subdivision. The apricots from the bustling roadside fruit stand are bright, fresh, and sweet; the houses are pale, new, and dense.

A westerly wind gusts across the Antioch Bridge, making the transit wobbly and unsettling. North of the river, windmills on the Montezuma Hills are facing me and whirling energetically. I'm pedaling wearily against the headwind, wishing I could harness their power. So much for making good time on the flats. The struggle against the fierce headwind is mollified in the suburbs of Fairfield, though a wrong turn loses valuable daylight riding time. I'm worried about making it over the steep, remote ridge to Santa Rosa before dark.

The late afternoon sun glints through the peaceful vineyards of Wooden Valley and Napa Valley, and a brisk tailwind quickens the pace northward on the Silverado Trail. In downtown St. Helena, the Wine Train, loaded with sightseers, halts traffic at the intersection. The train whistle is a thrice-daily reminder of the tension between agriculture and tourism.

The steep eastern grade of Spring Mountain is a traditional Go Greenbelt! challenge, and with 150 miles in the legs already, the climb is painfully slow. Definitely not sauntering now. Dusk settles to a chorus of crickets and an occasional owl hoot, but sufficient light remains to make it safely down the other side.

I roll into Santa Rosa in the dark and stop to call the hotel to make sure I can get in on "late arrival." The gal answering the phone, who is evidently at the hotel bar, testily assures me that "we'll let them know you're coming..on a bicycle."

The route from Santa Rosa to Occidental is mostly flat, and I figure it should go fairly quickly, even in the dark. However, darkness conceals the turnoff to the Graton bike path, and Occidental Road begins a slow, twisty climb through the dark woods, draining what little energy I have left.

Exhausted, I finally roll under the lighted sign of the Union Hotel at midnight, hoping the manager can be summoned. Doorbells, knocks, and phone calls go unheeded at the office, and the gal at the bar rudely hangs up on me: "No one here, goodbye."

Determined to get the room and shower I've already paid for, I stumble down to the Union Hotel Saloon, which is alive with country music and somewhat inebriated patrons. I put on my best Clint Eastwood squint and stage a dramatic entrance: swing open the door, clomp across the wooden floor in cleated shoes, fold arms seriously and lean across the counter. The bartender folds her arms skeptically and assesses the matted hair, bleary eyes, neon jacket, and dangling Camelbak hose.


"I need a room."

She dials the hotel office, hands me the receiver. I nearly fall asleep, mesmerized by the ringing.

"Well, you might as well have a cocktail while you wait." The guy seated next to me stirs his drink. Not if I expect to walk to the hotel.

"They ain't answering? "Hell, we'll fix you up with a room." He slides off the seat and heads purposefully out the door.

I stumble after him. "Do you know the managers?"

"No, but I've lived here 28 years now and they're about to get to know me." I surmise that the managers are newcomers, maybe only been here 5 or 10 years.

Loud banging on the bedroom window elicits a muffled response and eventually the manager emerges half-dressed from the office door, smiling apologetically. "Guess we were dead to the world." My rescuer heads triumphantly back to the bar, and I finally collapse on the bed in exhaustion.

163 miles, 12,800 ft climbing

Day 2: Occidental to Los Gatos

Sonoma Coast
Sonoma Coast

A hearty breakfast of pancakes, bacon, eggs, and lots of coffee at Howard's Café dispels the gloom of a chilly coastal fog. As the caffeine slowly takes effect, I follow the Old Bohemian Highway out of town, on early morning auto-pedal. The Russian River is tranquil in the morning mist, and only a few fisherman and boaters are out, instead of the usual mid-day throng of weekend tourists. Where river meets ocean, I turn south on Highway 1 and begin the scenic haul down the coast.

Much of the route today tracks the San Andreas Fault southeastward, hugging elongated bays, traversing narrow valleys, and clambering over steep ridges. Where the fault heads offshore near Bolinas, I climb out of the coastal drizzle to the nap-inducing sunshine on the summit of Mt. Tamalpais, the scenic vantage point of the day.

Mt. Tamalpais summit
Mt. Tamalpais summit

The descent from the ridge reenters the fog and tourist zones, and a chilly wind whips across the Golden Gate Bridge. After winding through San Francisco, I head south down the coast on the Great Highway and rejoin the fault on the Peninsula, where linear lakes and streams mark its trace. The Sawyer Camp bike path bordering Crystal Springs Reservoir is a pleasant reprieve from the city traffic, and continuing on Canada Road is equally tranquil since "Bicycle Sunday" closes the road to motorized vehicles.

At dusk I pull into Woodside. Fresh pizza crusts are spinning in the window of the café, and I could easily remain here and consume several of them loaded with all the trimmings. But there are 20 miles and a major climb to finish before the 11:00 p.m. curfew at the Sanborn hostel. It's going to be close.

As darkness sets in, I arrive at the base of Old La Honda Rd., a favorite pain-inducing climb among local riders. I now get to do it in the dark after 145 miles on the road and with a load of gear. No records are set this evening as I finally intersect Skyline Blvd. to continue the climb to Saratoga Gap. During the day, this road is abuzz with fast annoying motorcycles and every model of sports utility vehicle in the high-end market. Tonight it is eerily quiet, except for the howling wind that is whipping fog across the ridge and reducing visibility to a quarter-turn ahead. I'm now glad for the extra wool jersey, but am quickly chilled through four layers of clothing, wondering how I'll ever reach the lodge by curfew time.

Near the top of the climb, beacon lights of the fire station draw me like a moth. I punch the clock on the cyclometer: 11:01 p.m. Through a broken cell phone connection, I explain my position to the manager at the hostel, who is at least sympathetic to someone arriving by bicycle. I estimate 20 minutes to cover the remaining 7 or so miles, thinking of the fast descent on Highway 9. He figures 45 minutes, noting the steep climb up Sanborn Rd. He is right. I walk the steeper sections of the climb, being close to exhaustion and unable to judge the pitch and yaw in the dark.

The manager quietly opens the door, whispers a welcome, and ushers a grateful, shivering rider and dripping bike into the warm lodge. I'm offered a choice of couches in the living room, since the dorm is closed during "quiet time." I eat the two oranges in the bowl marked "common," select the couch occupied by the resident cat, wriggle into the sleep sack, burrow under a pile of wool blankets, and fitfully begin to drift off, still shivering.

Kerplunk! I gasp as something hits me in the chest. The cat. It lands spread eagle and begins purring -- vibrator, heater, and fur rug all in one. I quickly warm up and fall asleep.

192 miles, 10,100 ft climbing

Day 3: Los Gatos to Martinez

The morning is bright and promising, quite in contrast to the tempestuous fog storm of the night before. Bagels, pastries, and coffee at the Saratoga bakery rejuvenate me for the long day ahead.

The next 70 miles to San Jose via Gilroy is all new territory for me. From a quick glance at the map, the route appears to be mostly flat. If I can make good time on this section, there's still hope of finishing the ride in 76 hours.

The route leaves the outskirts of Silicon Valley and heads southeast through golden rolling hills. Portentous signs announce new parcels of land for sale, and trophy homes are beginning to sprout among the oaks. Nearing Gilroy, the pungent smell of field crops draws me to a roadside produce stand with bins of fresh tomatoes, peppers, onions. I stock up on fruit and cookies and turn north.

A bike path winds through the riparian habitat of Coyote Creek Valley, another endangered open space which is highlighted in the Greenbelt tour. I'm enjoying a tailwind and making good time on the flat stretch -- until the bike path dumps me onto Metcalf Rd. I halt in disbelief at the ribbon of pavement winding up the ridge at an impossibly steep grade. Where was this hill hiding in the flat and easy route?

Mt. Hamilton
Mt. Hamilton

Shifting down to the granny gears, I'm moving slowly enough to study an outcrop of mangled rocks in the Calaveras fault zone and write a full-length research report. Whatever possessed Go Greenbelt! to include this stiff climb on the route? It soon becomes clear. The swift, steep descent through a window in the hills is almost shocking as it breaks into the suburbs of San Jose. How quickly we move from open space to urban development.

I'm back in familiar territory at the base of Mt. Hamilton. The climb up Clayton Rd. is a nice stair-stepping alternative to the lower busy part of Mt. Hamilton Rd. Now it's just a matter of grinding out the remaining 16 miles to the summit. I'm buoyed by the thought that most of the tour route lies below me and pull into the observatory parking lot with a sense of relief. Indeed, this is the long way home, but it offers a perspective that can't be obtained from shorter jaunts in the valleys.

A quick, twisty descent down the backside of Mt. Hamilton opens into a peaceful San Antonio Valley as the sun is setting behind the ridge. I arrive at the Junction Café, which remains open only because a few customers are lingering over their burgers and fries. After a quick drink of Millennium Snapple (whatever that is), I'm off down Mines Rd. in a race against darkness. It's a close call, with darkness getting the edge, as I roll into Livermore. The evening is cold and windy, but the sky is clear, and stars and moon illuminate the road heading north out of town.

Fields and skylights yield to the gated communities and street lamps of Blackhawk. Danville Blvd, usually crammed with traffic during the day, is nearly deserted, so I decide on a direct shot north to Martinez. I'm feeling drowsy, but attempt to stay alert to the dangers of early morning carousers exiting the bars on Pacheco Blvd.

Familiar streets in Martinez...the corner market, the Baptist church. The bike finally turns into my driveway at 2 a.m., just under 72 hours and 550 miles on the road.

Tomorrow evening I'll celebrate with the fireworks display. The two-mile walk to the Martinez waterfront should be a nice...saunter.