Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
Arriving via email this week was a very short note from a cycling friend, Kenneth Herrington who is with the Fresno, California Cycling Club.
It said, “Just want to let you know. Mark Perkins has published the complete history of the Climb to Kaiser. 700+ pages.”
The Climb to Kaiser
Another bike friend, Mark Perkins wrote the book. He’s been working on it for years and years. I had seen a rough draft about two years ago. At that time he was having difficulty finding a publisher.
I’m so pleased that he managed to publish it that I wanted to share it with you even though I think Mark’s aiming the book at fellow Fresno clubmates and the many riders who’ve done the C2K. I don’t know how many of you have ridden the ride or are interested in it enough to buy Mark’s book. It’s well researched and full of fun facts, photos, charts and ride stories.
The event has been going on since 1977. It’s unique because it’s roughly an out and back course, 77.5 miles out and 77.5 back for 155 miles total. It climbs to the top of Kaiser Pass, which is on the backside of Yosemite National Park, elevation 9,163 feet. That’s the turnaround. The paved road ends at the top actually.
While the highest point is a little over 9K, the total elevation gain is a whopping 16,000 feet. 16K over 155 miles would be bad enough but the great majority of that climbing happens over about 65 miles at the beginning of the ride! And, while you might think it’s a free ride back, you’re so thrashed from all that huffing and grinding on the out leg that you curse every climb all the way back and there are quite a few.
In 1996 when I was at Bicycling Magazine Ken invited me to come down and do the ride. I went with another editor and afterward we were so awed by the ride that we included it on our 10 Toughest Rides in America list. If you’re interested in giving it a go, it’s coming up Saturday June 17, 2023. Here’s all the information: https://fresnocycling.com/event-4831435.
It’s a tough ride for sure but it’s also scenic. It passes by Shaver and Huntington Lakes and covers some lovely roads.
My C2K Story
Mark Perkins asked me to write up my 1996 Climb to Kaiser ride for the book because even though I finished it, it was a miracle that I did. I’m going to retell the tale here. It’s one of my most embarrassing cycling stories.
The whole problem was that I didn’t realize how incredibly hard the ride was. So I just brought my race geared road bike. I am pretty sure I had a 39/53 in front and 11-21 in the back because for a long time that was what I rode and raced on. It’s hilly here in Santa Cruz where I ride so I figured I could make it up the climbs in the C2K.
Well, the Climb to Kaiser leaves the flatness of Fresno and pretty soon goes straight up. As I mentioned, in about 65 miles you climb something like 14,000 feet.
Despite having to zig-zag to make it up the steepest sections like the Tollhouse and Big Creek climbs, I actually made good time to the top of Kaiser and was probably one of the first 10 riders. The air’s thin and it’s freezing up there. They put one of those foil blankets over me so I would stay warm. I felt fine for about a minute and then was overcome by nausea.
I thought it was the elevation. It got worse and worse. I tried to eat. They had a table with little cups with sliced peaches in them. I took a cup and the peaches tasted like poison. I tried the other food. It all tasted sour, awful, spoiled. The guy preparing the food sampled what I was complaining about and said it was all fine. I could see that he was worried about me. So of course I took off before he could force me to stop. How hard can it be I told myself, it’s all downhill. Not!
All the way back I got sicker. While it was about 40 degrees at the top of Kaiser, as I closed in on Fresno the temperature soared toward 100. I was dizzy and could barely balance. Riders passed, saw me wobbling down the road and asked to help but I couldn’t hold a wheel. Still I kept pedaling. As we got back to Fresno, the red lights at the huge intersections stopped me and I was so ill I was vomiting, grossing out all the people in cars. My bike, handlebar tape and clothing were covered in the red energy drink I couldn’t keep down.
The last miles to the finish were dismal. I was crawling along. My vision was so blurred I could hardly see. I flatted and it was all I could do to inflate the tire because my arms were so weak. But I kept going and got there, crossed the line for an official finish (23rd) and fell over onto the lawn where I tried to take a nap.
That’s part 1 of the story. What made it so embarrassing was that the ride organizers had asked me to come do the ride to write about it for Bicycling Magazine. So naturally, I was wearing our Bicycling kit and I had arrived in our Bicycling van so everyone knew the magazine was there. And everybody knew that the ride had about killed one of the editors. 😉
Ken asked me for years to come do it again. They saw my ride as a failure I think. The failure though was that I was stupid and brought the wrong gearing. The effort of that much climbing on those huge gears put me in the calorie deficit that then put me in a situation where I could never eat or drink enough. Combined with the huge temperature swing, it just did me in.
Part 2 is that the nurse at the finish insisted I go to the hospital. I insisted NO, no hospital! I told her I would be fine if I just rested in the grass at the finish. But she had a couple big guys pick me up and put me in their truck to take me to the hospital.
There’s no way I needed to go to the hospital and no way I was going to go. So on the way I convinced the two guys to drop me off at a hotel instead – my room from the night before was still available. I bought some sugary food from the hotel and went in, turned on the AC and commenced eating and resting and watching TV.
Well, back at the event, Nurse Ratched called the hospital and they said I wasn’t there. She then decided to call my wife!
Well at the time my wife worked weekends as an event manager at a resort here. The only way to reach her was through security so a cop received the call and went to track her down. By the time she got the message it had become “your husband is in an emergency room in Fresno and needs help.”
In reality I was eating ice cream watching TV in the hotel feeling better and better by the minute. When suddenly the phone in the room rang. I’m sure you can guess how the conversation went. She was happy to hear I wasn’t dying in some emergency room but she was definitely not happy about getting such a scare. She still gets upset every time I say I want to do a big ride because of it. And she knows about big rides having ridden cross country with me.
If the Climb to Kaiser sounds like your cup of tea, I hope my story doesn’t keep you from giving it a try. You now know to bring the right gearing and who knows, you might even end up in Mark’s book at some point.
If you’ve got an embarrassing or epic ride story to share please do so in a comment below so that I’m not the only one here with energy drink on his face.
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. A pro mechanic & cycling writer for more than 40 years, he’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Tune in to Jim’s popular YouTube channel for wheel building & bike repair how-to’s. Jim’s also known for his cycling streak that ended in February 2022 with a total of 10,269 consecutive daily rides (28 years, 1 month and 11 days of never missing a ride). Click to read Jim’s full bio.