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Reflections on Sonoma Mountain Rd (Petaluma branch)

  • Tuesday, March 19, 2013 6:12 PM
    Message # 1247060

    I had a great time on Sonoma Mountain Road today, which is odd, because it’s not a place I go to enjoy myself.  I go there to get worked.

    The hill nearest my domicile, upon which I’ve run or ridden, has always been a defining feature of my life.  In Tam Valley, it was the Miwok Trail.  In Marinwood, it was the Queenstone Fireroad.  In Novato, it was Mt. Burdell.  Here in Petaluma it’s Sonoma Mountain Road.  On these hills, this formerly formless blob of biomass was formally transformed by attending mass at the Church of Our Blasted Mother of the Graviton.

    SMR and I go back about 20 years, but it wasn’t until about 10 years ago, when I transitioned from running to cycling, that we really got to know each other.  SMR dishes out a beating every time I venture forth on her 20-plus percent grades.  I go there when time is short and I need to substitute intensity for duration in my workout, usually with some goal in mind- a PR, moving up a notch on the Strava leaderboard, or building leg strength.  Rated as the 4th most difficult climb in Sonoma County, training on SMR has made me confident that because I can climb it, I can climb anything.

    But today was different.  I found myself on SMR with no goal other than to have a good time.  Because I was just touring the hill rather than trying to attack it, SMR refrained from delivering her usual punishment, and instead, welcomed me into her embrace like an old friend.  As I worked my way up the hill, my legs burned with the effort, and it felt good.  The heat of the sun beat down upon my back, and it felt good.  Cows blew kisses at me as I crept by, and it smelt good.  A kind of magic suffused the place- I was in it, part of it, appreciative of it, amazed by it.  It a gift handed to me by God, complete with a little card that read, “Don’t ever say I never do anything nice for you.”

    Upon arrival at the top, I sat in the shade and reveled in just being there.  It was so quiet and peaceful.  I absorbed the sights, smells and sounds of the place- the contour of the hills, the scent of dry grass baking in the sun, the distant bleating of sheep.  Why had I never noticed the reflectors on the warning sign marking the end of the road?  Always in too much of a hurry, I guessed.  Nine battered circular red reflectors, arranged in a square grid.  I pinched the crinkly skin on my pale, skinny legs, testimony to my aging body.  How many times have I ridden up here in the last ten years- 50?  100?  How many more trips up this hill will I make?

    I drifted back down the hill, stopping at the overlook where teens park and do teen stuff.  Usually I glance at this spectacular view only briefly as I speed by.  Today I stopped and took it in, trying to figure out what I was looking at.  Is that Corona Road, or is it Railroad Avenue?  It all looks so different from up here.  I got back on the bike and resumed my descent.

    A lot of riders shy away from SMR.  Sure, the climb is hard, but it’s the trip back down that spooks people.  For many, it’s akin to riding a demonic, malevolent roller coaster from a Stephen King novel.  Steep and narrow, it rolls and twists as it falls.  The pavement is horrible- broken and patched, gravel and potholes.  Wagging their heads and clucking their tongues, riders often describe SMR with terms like “scary”, “dangerous”, and “organ donor”.

    I don’t think of SMR as dangerous so much as playful.  The trick is to ride the descent like it’s a trail rather than a road- stay focused, read the surface, choose your line, react quickly, and maintain urinary continence.  You say you’re afraid of a nasty, wheel-gobbling pothole appearing out of nowhere, directly in front of you?  God gave you cleats so you could bunny-hop it, just like you would on a mountain bike.

    Oh, I suppose there are some differences between a trail and SMR.  I don’t do 40+ mph descents on a trail.   And unlike a trail, SMR is pavement- the asphalt equivalent of a coral reef.  Just to keep things exciting, SMR features the occasional car.

    There’s a lot that can go wrong…a chance encounter with a llama, a tire blowing, an inattentive or impaired driver, or just plain old pilot error.  Once you get up a head of steam charging downhill on those skinny little road tires, stopping distances become comparable to a train.  What if something were to happen resulting in my death or severe disability?  Would anyone think, “I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something different about him…”?  When I’m off the bike and dwell on such things, I’ll find myself fretting, worrying, and urging myself to act responsibly and ride with greater caution.

    But as I resumed my descent and gathered speed, I forgot about all that.  I was having too much fun.

    With the same force with which it resisted my ascent, gravity pushed me down the hill.  My tires sang to me; the buzz and chatter of my bike as it flew over the pavement provided a continuous data stream by which I monitored traction, the physical integrity of my bike, and the quality of my new fillings.   

    The twisting, falling road rushed at me, an endless, blurred ribbon of variegated asphalt patches.  At the crests of the undulations, I became briefly weightless before diving down into the next trough, where powerful G forces wrapped my nostrils around my ears.  I searched the fractured pavement for the best possible line, all the while positioning myself for the eventuality of encountering a car.  The wild ride demanded, nay, produced total concentration and total focus.  If only I could bottle this and sell it as a treatment for ADD.

    I was in the zone today, eating it up, free-basing the rush.  It was like a roller coaster, except I was in control.  At least, that’s what I told myself.  Irresponsible, you say?  Perhaps.  Fun?  Oh yeah.

    It’s not every day that SMR welcomes me like an old friend.  Why rush home?  When I reached the bottom, I turned around and headed back up the hill to do it all over again.  And if over the next ten years, I’m able to make this trip 100 more times, I’ll consider myself blessed indeed.

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