The 1997 Devil Mountain Double
by Bill Oetinger
The Devil Mountain Double Century was held on Saturday, April 19, 1997. The first DMD was run last July, but had only about a dozen participants. This year's edition, with over 60 riders, felt more like an official event. Considering the reputed toughness of the course (206 miles and 18,000' of climbing) and the newness of the event, that was probably a fairly decent turnout. It had rained steadily the day before, but the ride set off under clearing skies, although the roads were still wet. Riders left in two waves: those concerned about being slow could begin in the dark at 5:00 am, use their lights, and then leave them at the first rest stop. Everyone else started at six. Given how long the ride eventually took, and the fact that virtually everyone finished after dark anyway, this was probably an unnecessary complication.
After a brief cruise through the suburbs the route turns uphill onto the SW flank of Mt Diablo for the first of several big climbs. This ascent is never very steep, except for the final two hundred yards to the summit, but it is long: 3200' of climb rationed out steadily over ten miles. It's also very beautiful...green canyons spilling down to glades of old oaks with fleecy fingers of fog trailing through their branches, and the rosy glow of sunrise peeking over the far side of the mountain. After checking in at the summit rest stop (mile 20), we bombed back down the mountain off the NW side...12 miles of highly entertaining freefall...but after all that fun, we had to put up with 15 miles of suburban boulevards around the fringes of Walnut Creek and Clayton before returning to great backcountry scenery on Morgan Territory Road. This delightful road rolls through rural ranchettes for a few miles and then begins climbing in little stairsteps through oak and bay forest, with a lovely little stream splashing alongside the road. All the little pitches eventually add up to a fairly substantial ascent, and then at around mile 53, the climb tops out and is followed by a wild, 5-mile downhill--probably the fastest of the day--that drops down to the flat and rolling fields around Livermore.
Morgan Territory is a north-to-south run, but now the route swings directly east and heads gradually uphill to Altamont Pass (home of all those windmills). We were blown east up the hills like a bullet train, but unfortunately, we then had to turn around and beat back west into the same wind on the very stiff climb up and over Patterson Pass. There is a severe, almost brutal beauty to these empty, windswept hills. (They look great when you're flashing by at 30-mph with the wind at your back, but a little less attractive at 10-mph, grinding back into the teeth of half a gale.) Finally--and not a moment too soon--the route turns south again--out of the wind--on Mines Road at mile 88. This road and its southern extension, San Antonio Road, offer 40 miles of the most beautiful cycling imaginable. Sometimes the road climbs high up the canyon wall and sometimes it slips back down to the creekbed and follows the stream as it cascades from pool to pool. Alongside the stream are fields sprinkled with wildflower confetti and dotted with gigantic, majestic oaks. Some of the climbs are so gradual, they almost seem level...you only wonder why you're not going more quickly. Others are real ascents, followed by full-tilt, downhill fliers. The lunch stop pops up midway along this stretch, and after pouring a little more coal in the boiler, you're ready to carry on to the next big challenge of the day: the ascent up the backside of Mt Hamilton (at over 4000' the highest paved road in the Bay Area). The past 40 miles have lifted you up to 2000' so that now you only have to climb another 2000' in the final five miles. On paper, it doesn't seem that tough, and in fact, it's never seriously steep. But at 130 miles, it rides a lot harder than it might at 30. It seems to take forever...
But what goes up must eventually come down, and in this case that means a huge descent off the front side, after passing Lick Observatory at the summit. Counting Crothers Road and Alum Rock Park at the base of Mt Hamilton, it adds up to a downhill of over 20 miles (broken up by three moderate uphills). In spite of all that descending, most riders were feeling more-or-less fried by the rest stop at mile 152. With a quarter of the ride to go, it was starting to look like a very long day (and night). What's more, the nastiest climb of the ride was still ahead: Sierra Road, which climbs 1800' between miles 157 and 160. This is a serious piece of work, and it was a rare individual who didn't throw in at least a few shoelacing switchbacks somewhere on this wall. On the bright side, the scenery is wonderful: as you near the top, the entire Bay Area, from south of San Jose to north of the Golden Gate is laid out below you, and then, after cresting the summit, you work across the ridgeline and down into canyons empty of anything but trees, grasses, and a few isolated homes.
Five miles of fast, technical downhill bring you to a short, sharp climb up to a wonderful road skirting Calaveras Reservoir. Not even an occasional farm house intrudes on the isolation here, as this is all protected watershed. The road dips and dives in and out of one wooded canyon after another for nearly ten miles before finally descending and straightening out for the run into the last rest stop in the sleepy little village of Sunol (mile 181). By now it was full dark for all but the fastest riders, so most people missed some really pretty scenery over the final 25 miles. The first four miles down Niles Canyon are very nice, with a fine creek bordering the road, but the traffic load is heavy, making the riding quite unpleasant, especially after dark. In contrast, the next leg (Palomares Canyon) is absolutely devoid of cars...not a single vehicle passed me over the road's entire ten-mile span. This pretty, forested road climbs gently alongside yet another babbling brook for five miles and then descends easily into a valley of what appeared in the moonlight to be affluent horse ranches. The next five miles along Castro Valley Blvd and Crow Canyon are thoroughly forgettable: tacky suburbs, commercial crap, and too much traffic...just something to be endured until the turn onto quiet Norris Canyon for the final climb and descent of the ride (about two miles up and two miles down). After that, it's just a couple of miles through the 'burbs back to ride headquarters at the San Ramon Marriott, where showers, hot tub, sauna, and lasagna were waiting.
Final comments: this double is HARD! Most riders I spoke with afterward had taken at least two hours longer to complete it than the Terrible Two. (On the other hand, there is no TT-style time limit, so riders were allowed to straggle in all night, and did.) For an almost first-time effort, the organizers did an adequate job, but there was some grumbling about the course markings (or lack of) and about the lunch stop food (or lack of). There were also many comments to the effect that the ride may be just too difficult for any sort of mass appeal...even by the rarified standards of double-centuries. On the positive side, the route, while extremely challenging, is also extremely beautiful. I figure there are 30 miles of suburbs, ten miles of busy highways, ten miles of boring flats, and over 150 miles of superb, backcountry scenery...remarkable, considering how close it is to major metropolitan areas.
With the great scenery and the awesome challenge, the DMD has the potential to become a classic event. But those in charge will have to do some fine-tuning before next year for it to be a real quality product. They'll have to mark the course better and rethink their lunch concept. They may also want to consider how to lose a few miles and a few hills if they want the ride to be accessible to mere mortals. Finally, they may need to reconsider the notion of a ride this hard as a charity fund-raiser...their justification for the rather steep $60 entry fee. Making it a little easier and charging a little less might net them more profit in the end.
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