Ham on Thanksgiving (Tall Tales from Mt. Hamilton and Mt. Diablo)

Ham on Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving day ride is a tradition. An early morning offering to the calorie gods. A sacrifice at the alter of Impending Gluttony. A pre-emptive strike

Usually we ride down the big expressway and off into the hills that take us to Los Gatos. The climb up Kennedy is short, but hearty enough to make you think you’ve done a little work. The vista at the top delivers.

I always take the descent down the backside too slowly with Sal rocketing off the front, dropping like a rock. It is possible there’s nothing uglier than the way I go downhill on a bike. Sal is kind and always says, “You’re getting better!

He sounds sincere but it may be wishful thinking.

Los Gatos is a small town full of rich people and one good coffee shop. It’s a great place to watch people with too much money try to figure out how to spend it. Lots of expensive bikes but most of them are loaded onto the tops of expensive cars.

Two americanos later you’re headed back up the hill to climb your way to turkey heaven. The weather is consistently stunning, if chilly, and all of the south bay is filled with people preparing to overeat and then moan through the aftermath. Fall colors across the hillsides are muted and fading, which makes you think of Christmas.

This year, we decide to forgo the climb up Kennedy and the beautiful rich people. We drive instead to old San Jose where the taco stands will still your heart and big roads turn smaller and then lead to a mountain called Hamilton.

It’s a famous climb. The source of cycling lore that has surrounded for me for years. Sal grew legs on its grade and I’d watched the peaks from afar for years and years. If there’s one way to pull a classic “off the couch” return to pedaling, it’s with a climb like that. Luckily, I’m a fan of the absurd, so I didn’t take much convincing.

The hill delivers a steady grade and big, yawning views of the valley below and on into the other ranges beyond them. It’s a slow, smiling climb in the company of maybe 500 strangers. A smattering of colors mixed with pain. Yellow on the trees, blue in the sky, red in the eyes. We are passed and make passes and the day gets clearer as we approach the summit.

Not far from the top, a friend catches up to us and we ride in a trio until the observatory, which was once a white spec that required squinting, is a towering white sphere of a building. Bigger than you figured it for – more Star Wars than you’d planned on. You know you’re high when you reach a radio tower but an observatory? That’s a whole new ballgame.

The summit is covered in cyclists: recumbent riders bundled in screaming yellow and long beards leaning against their rigs eating bananas, racer types in shiny kits tipping back electrolyte bottles and killing Gu packets. We cross the “finish line” to applause and cowbells.

The visual spectacle is 180 degrees of Wow. We point fingers toward landmarks and peaks and things we recognize. We make the obligatory photos and self-congratulate.

I burn through a set of brake pads as we make our way back down, but not before looking up to notice the way the grass bends as I go by – the peculiar shape of the bark on the trees – the way the blue in the sky gets darker toward the horizon.

Back at home there are Sicilians celebrating being American. I’ll see your pumpkin pie and raise you two canoli. The turkey is too big and Rosie has produced an excess of gravy and mashed potatoes. There are screaming babies. The short Mediterranean people have got this figured out.

Day Two: The Devil and the Fat Kid

One great climb deserves another so we follow Hamilton with the little devil in the East Bay – Mt. Diablo. A little steeper, a little more tempermental.

The weather is not in our favor so we bring embrocation – and friends. Misery loves company. These are kids from my advertising days back before I had this “thing” with the bike.

O’Rourke, Swift, Purnell, Bondi. The Mt Diablo Attack Team.

Walnut Creek is like east bay suburban mega-heaven. Big, wide roads and identical houses as big as castles lined up in neat rows. We cruise through in the rig, duck into the parking lot of a school at the base of a climb, and prepare to launch an assault.

O’Rourke and Purnell are ready to roll in ten minutes. Little do they know it will take me another 15 or so to root around my bag for lip balm, gloves, glasses (I’ll switch the lenses three times before deciding on the dark-ish ones), and arm warmers. It takes me 7 minutes to pick out socks (I go with argyle). This shit’s important, man.

In the end I still forget to embrocate my legs.

We are four cyclists climbing Mt. Diablo: three bundled boys, one bare-legged girl with no gloves and summer weight arm-warmers. I run hot.

O’Rourke is coming back from a self-proclaimed fitness nadir. He claims a nickname early on: The Fat Kid. We roll with it (intended). Let me tell you this: 220 or not – don’t underestimate the power of a once-fit fat kid with a corncob. Damn if that boy can’t push a monster gear. Pow – er.

We put our hands on the bars and pedal – the vistas start up not more than a few miles in. Off in the distance, tiny towns look like little hobbit villages. Cathedral lighting falls out of the clouds and lights up the still-orange trees. Pastoral. Peaceful. Sweeping. Pow. This is why you climb.

I’m no mountain goat, but I do love to go uphill. There’s a comforting, rhythmic lull to the pain and a real, physical adversary to contend with. Either you keep going or you don’t. And you never step off your bike. Ever. Right?

Don’t ever do that.

Burr Purnell smiles a lot. That’s what I’m thinking when we reach Devil’s Elbow. I haven’t seen him for a while now, but I bet he’s up there smiling and climbing. He’s made of long muscles and 0% everything and he’s making this shit look easy. He is possibly the nicest human being you will ever meet and he climbs like he is filled with helium. I hate him.

I take the sweeping left-hand turn and pass Sally, who is making a video of me. “This is crazy.” I say as I go by. I’m not talking about the climb anymore, I’m talking about the plummeting temperature, gusting wind and grim fog. We’re climbing up into white nothingness. The views are gone.

I look down and see a pile of congealed vomit which would be disgusting in most other instances. At this moment it is hilarious. I am by myself, laughing out loud in the middle of a cloud. At vomit.

Up ahead, the Fat Kid and his corn cob are kicking my ass and I am running calculations about the wattage he must be putting out to dish out this ride. Sal catches me, chats, and rides on ahead. I reach the base of The Wall with O’Rourke in my sights and watch him go to the left, which appears to be the wrong way up a one-way road. I stay to the right.

The road is too narrow to paperboy, but I try anyway. It’s an 18% grade at the end of a 12-mile grind. Asphalt cruelty. Some engineer’s kick in the teeth to human-powered summit-baggers. Take that!

A man ahead of me steps off his bike. He’s walking as I pass him, my body forward, folded over the bars doling out one agonizing pedal stroke after another. He says nothing to me and so I pass him in silence. What would I say to him anyway? He’s walking his bike. “Don’t ever do that!!” It’s not what he needs to hear.

The parking lot at the summit is littered with people and cars. Big, lazy cars. My gasping lungs laugh in the direction of your big, lazy cars! I coast over to where Purnell and Bondi are waiting for me and greet them through the smashing heartbeat and hyperventilation-grade wheezing

I kiss the Sicilian one. Or maybe I don’t. Either way, I mean to.

O’Rourke appears with the goofy smile of gleeful oxygen debt and we all lean on our bikes and tell the original versions of stories that will see many more incarnations. There are hand gestures and dramatic waving motions. Arm warmers and jackets appear.


We linger just long enough to make a photo at the elevation sign, which reads “Summit: Elevation 3849”. Upon extended consideration a 3 placed next to an 8 followed by a 4 and a 9 does not seem that impressive. Or that high. Or that hard.

Just numbers lined up next to each other, standing at attention on brown sign on top of a big hill. In the photo I am pointing a white-gloved finger at the 8 accusingly. (In retrospect perhaps I should have blamed the 3). Burr Purnell is smiling, as usual. O’Rourke looks smug.

Moments later we begin the long descent through the cloud. Rain-slick roads and hairpin turns. It only takes 1.4 miles for my face to go numb. My lips are the color of lilacs and frozen into a half-grimace, fingers numbing through thin gloves.

The boys shoot away from me and I think of Krabbe. Among the ten million reasons to love “The Rider” there’s this: Krabbe hates to go downhill. God bless ‘im, so do I.

But every turn leads to another hundred feet in elevation loss. Another degree of temperature gained. When we pass through the only intersection four miles down, the air is getting clearer and the vistas return. Down to the south gate with cliffs rising to our right and the world dropping away to the left. Even as we glide into light and visibility, the wind maintains its ripping cruelty.

My feet are no longer. They may still be attached to the pedals, but they could just as easily be gone for good. I send signals down to motionless toes that refuse to respond.

I race for Maker’s Mark.

It’s in my back pocket – in a flask that looks like a cell phone from the late 80’s. It’s been there since I started going up and it will be there when I get back to the car. And when I drink from it, I will be alive again. Stranger things certainly have been carried to the tops of small mountains and back again – but I doubt anything else would be as satisfying.

Back at the truck I ask the boys if anyone else wants to “make the call” and pass the life-giving cell phone around in a circle until it’s empty. Then I kick a frozen foot against the rear tire until it starts to tingle, swear until I’m out of sailor words, and laugh awkwardly through a frozen face that won’t smile.

Full defrosting occurs later at the Hick’ry Pit – a local joint that serves the Sicilian a hamburger the size of his head (no small feat). O’Rourke and I put away slow-cooked ribs like rabid animals fighting over fresh kill. Purnell eats something really healthy. And smiles. A lot.

We drink cheap beer as the stories from the top of the mountain gain girth and might. We are 30 foot giants climbing a 47% grade! We are plummeting speed rockets descending at 94.6 miles per hour through an arctic storm!

In truth, we’re just a little group of old friends celebrating a bike ride that is about more than elevation or miles or success or speed. It’s about the daily task of writing our life-stories and everyday adventures. It’s about going for it – whatever it is – and loving it while you do it with people who make you smile.

Climbing mountains, on foot or with wheels, offers an array of life metaphors that are too obvious to be worth pointing out. You suffer, you laugh with friends, you battle, you are amazed by the landscape, you consider your mortality, you want to vomit. Maybe you resort to paperboy tactics, maybe you don’t. On the way back down, your teeth rattle.

Whatever you do, you don’t step off your bike. Ever.





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  1. GoPro Helmet Cam Footage from Mt. Diablo I just posted this to Ye Olde Cycling Diaries column...


  1. Very inspiring. Thanks!

  2. Aaaah, climbing! That’s what cycling is all about. Loooove your article, can feel your pain, your joy and your happiness at the same time.
    Enjoy your sicilian food to go,

  3. David Brower

    Oh, yeah, it was cold Friday! I was under-dressed with tights and a long jersey. It was a lot nicer on Weds and Thursday. If you come back around Christmas/New Years, you might find the top closed to cars with ice and snow. If you’re dressed right, that is very sweet to summit.


  4. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

    I see that you have 705s- you should upload your rides to Strava (http://www.strava.com) and compete for the KOMs :-)

    Here is the current standings for Mt Diablo (http://www.strava.com/segments/254731) and Mt Hamilton (http://www.strava.com/segments/314569)


  5. Great photographs! The local climbs in the South Bay are great. My office sits just four miles from the base of Sierra Road, another great, but short local climb that one can reasonably tackle during lunch. Just make sure that you’re wearing a headband before ascending. Come February, with the Tour of California tackling this road, it’s always humbling to see just how much better the pros are. What takes me 34 minutes takes them about 22 or less. We realize what amateurs we are when we see Lance chatting while going up the hill, in saddle, up 15% grade- but it doesn’t keep us from loving every second.

  6. cross stressor

    If you and Sal haven’t done so already, you oughta climb Alba Road off Hwy 9 just past Ben Lomond – it’s four miles up with a grade anywhere from 5 to 20 percent. Then you can do the hairy descent down Felton Empire Road down into Felton and ease you way to Monte’s Log Cabin where a cool one (or a Maker’s Mark) will be waiting for you. It’s a short ride, but I’ve found no better “pre-emptive strike” (or break from family and screaming kids) for Thanksgiving.

  7. Stunning photos, great writing. Thanks! Compact or no compact on these climbs? What cassette?

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