Upon arrival in Santa Barbara, cyclists pedaling through the countryside enjoy views like this:
And the torment begins: “I dare you to climb me.”
I’ve visited Santa Barbara numerous times since childhood, but this was the first time I had bicycles and an inclination for an ambitious project. The Santa Ynez Mountains loom over Santa Barbara, and beckon to outdoor enthusiasts of every flavor.
Camino Cielo (“Sky Road”) is “the ride” in Santa Barbara. The basic up and back route tickles the mitochondria with about 4,000′ of climbing in about 10 miles. To make things a bit more sporty, I added a 26-mile warmup to Carpenteria to make a ~56 mile loop with a total of about 5,900′ of climbing.
For good luck, I wore my new Redmond Cycling Club jersey, which says “Hill is not a four letter word” (I think the geniuses @ RCC must count in hexadecimal…), and some 2006 Mt. Baker Hill Climb socks.
Adorned with some lucky lycra, I was ready to battle the infamous Camino Cielo.
During the climb I rode a ways with a local on a mt. bike who was on a training expedition, and ascending within a target heart rate range. While chatting, he mentioned that Lance Armstrong did 7 Camino Cielo repeats in one day. Number seven must have been an omen of things to come for Mr. Armstrong later that season.
To put things in perspective, I opted to become a pedestrian two times, and pedaled my way through bad leg cramps on the final pitch to the La Cumbre summit turnout. Once.
While one could opt for a simple up and back, a loop looked more compelling. Earlier in my visit I ascended the lower portion of what would be the return downhill on San Marcos Rd. Based on that recon mission, I determined that a San Marcos – Painted Cave Rd. ascent would be unreasonably steep. I wanted a challenging climb, but a climb I could actually pedal, more or less.
Indeed, a loop was the way to go. The views from the ridgeline were spectacular, especially given the rainfall this year. The rugged slopes were green and wildflowers accented the landscape.
For most of the loop, the road surface was badly potholed and the curves and hairpins were steeply banked back towards the hillside. The combination of steep climbing and road conditions made for an extremely challenging ride.
Typically after a long climb there is a gratifying, fun, high-speed descent. But, the mt. biker had warned me about the sharp hairpins and potholes. He advised that it took local knowledge and experience to survive the the descent without crashing. I took his advice and rode conservatively.
Aside from walking twice, it was a fantastic ride and must be among the top climbs in North America. The one mistake I made was to forget my hydration pack in Seattle. I drank three bottles in the 56-mile loop, but was dehydrated by the time I finished. I drank about a gallon of liquids in the hours after the ride.