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Mt Tamalpais – Home of Mountain Biking

November 2, 2014

Mount Tamalpais (“Mnt. Tam”) is often cited as the home of mountain biking. Located north of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, Mount Tam saw the likes of Gary Fisher, Tom Ritchey and friends turn innocent cruisers into mutant bikes that they called “clunkers”. Their efforts captured the attention of a small northern California company called Specialized, and the sport blossomed into a world-wide mountain biking Industry. These days Mount Tam State Park and adjacent areas are the scene of scenic, coastal cycling, both road and mountain.
One of my all-time favorite rides starts in the Italian quarter of San Francisco, crosses the Golden Gate Bridge (one of the two sidewalks is dedicated to cyclists), up to Fairfax then over Mnt. Tam. The route runs approx. 65 miles with 5,000 ft of elevation (104km /1,500 meters). The highest point is only 1,500 feet, but the grades on the mountain roads often exceed 10%, making this a reasonably stiff climb.  Beginning at Fairfax, you enter Mnt. Tam watershed and begin climbing immediately. The first reward is a stop at Alpine Dam at 672 feet elevation. You’re located less than 30 miles north of San Francisco, but it’s virtually pristine – there’s no development other than the dam on Fairfax Bolinas-Road. Traffic is low with road bikes typically outnumbering the cars.

As you climb from Alpine Dam, you ride through towering redwoods. These are the tallest trees in the world (Australian Eucalyptus are the 2nd  or 3rd tallest depending on who you ask). The redwoods provide an almost continuous shade to the summit, making this climb bearable on hot days. The downside is that the redwoods survive long dry summers by condensing water from the thick ocean fog. This process will soak the roads unexpectedly on the hottest days. I should know – my worst crash was at 30 mph when I hit a patch of water on an 80º day, but survived and now I know better. I completed the ride that day, heavily bruised and bloodied, but happy that my bike survived.
At Mnt. Tam’s summit, you’re greeted with ocean views. From there, you look almost directly down at the small coastal town of Stinson Beach. When my riding buddy pointed to Stinson from the summit during my first visit to Mnt. Tam, my reflex reaction was to ask “how do we get back up”. A group of Harley riders overheard and had a great laugh at my expense. (Sure, anyone can cross these mountains on a Harley. Try it on a bicycle.)

Stinson beach is the only town for miles along the coastal road, and inexplicably has no gas station or anywhere else to buy a bike tube. We’ve learned to ride self-service with tubes, a spare tire, a few CO2’s etc. Stinson offers lots of great lunch spots, so no need to overdo it with the gels.
The climb out of Stinson is spectacular as well. The stretch from Stinson back to Golden Gate Bridge runs along Highway 1. This stretch is the favorite location for car commercials thanks to the hairpin turns with breathtaking views of the Pacific. The climb is mild and only a few miles long, but there’s no shade, no bike lane and is one lane each way providing barely enough room for passing vehicles. This is where a Fly6 comes in handy.

Just north of Mt. Tam is Santa Rosa, home of Tour de France veteran, Levi Leipheimer. Each October, he hosts Levi’s Gran Fondo, a 102 mile ride from Santa Rosa, over the coastal ridge to the Pacific and back. Approximately 7,500 riders registered this year. The route over the mountain range and back to Santa Rosa features grades of up to 15% on narrow, twitchy country roads. Riders are issued timing chips, making this a time-trial or “race”. I ride mainly for the social and health aspects, but many Gran Fondo riders take themselves seriously and tend to overdo it. Having Levi and notable friends such as Kristin Armstrong (Olympic cycling gold medalist) and Barry Bonds (San Francisco Giants) seems to push people to ride beyond their limits. On the 2014 Gran Fondo, there were numerous accidents, with at least one person being air-lifted out. The heat and steep descents through hairpin turns caused many carbon wheels to fail. The carbon rims overheat from the friction, causing the resin to soften and warp. Soon enough, the tube or tire or both simply explode. At one particularly steep descent, we witnessed three such failures in a 15-minute span. Pretty scary when trying to record a personal best.
The Fly6 video accompanying this post was taken on Coleman Valley road, a little north of Bodega Bay (location for Hitchcock’s “The Birds”). You can see part of the coast before we head turn inland for the climb. In this video clip, my riding companion and I are using power meters to maintain a steady effort of 200watts through the climb. This requires some discipline due to a natural tendency to exert greater force on the steeper sections. Riders behind us see that we peddle at a reduced cadence, and naturally attempt to pass, only to gas-out and fade back down the hill. No wonder – it was over 80º during the steepest climb of the day, in spite of the cooling effect of the coast.


Levi’s Gran Fondo 2014 from Club Longo on Vimeo.

If you’re ever in San Francisco, there are multiple routes worth investigating. I recommend riding across the Golden Gate to Mount Tam, Sausalito or Hawk Hill. Be prepared to share the road with numerous cycling enthusiasts, and enjoy the view.