Yesterday I climbed a mountain on a bike. I hired a guide, Brian from Santa Barbara Fitness Tours, and together we planned our trek. Brian was a young man in his late 20’s, slim, bearded, and sporting a colorful tattoo on his leg. He gave me several options — did we want to do a more technical route with some singletrack areas that would test my mountain biking skills? Or did we want something less technical but still unpaved, and in the wilderness up high? Or old equestrian trails in Montecito? I told him I wanted wilderness, challenging climbing, and some technical maneuvering.
The night before the ride I dreamed of nothing but riding, and of things going all wrong. I awoke early because clearly sleep was not being a friend. I couldn’t wait to start but I had 4 hours, so I took breakfast out on the beach and thought more about what to do. I knew what I wanted, but I did not know which of Brian’s options would be right.
I decided finally on Romero Canyon fire road, because there would be a gigantic climb: 1000 feet elevation in just three miles. My usual ride is probably a 90 foot gain in one mile, and that is often tough. But here I was in Santa Barbara, California, mountains everywhere, and ocean besides, and I was going to go up a mountain.
“The first half mile is the worst,” Brian said as we walked our bikes to the fire road gate. I looked ahead and I saw a lot of rocky scree, almost no smooth ground. It bumped and stretched and twisted and rose like a gigantic angry yellow snake. Still, I got on and started pedaling. It was so hard pushing the pedals, up and over the scree. Every few feet, though, I would feel the bike kind of stop, or I guess it was me, and I’d lean over the handlebars and breathe hard. We ended up walking the bikes about 20 yards up until we got to a slightly more level part. This I could navigate — but it was so steep I had to burn and burn my legs and lungs just to keep moving. I tried not to look ahead because there was just more and more of that rising dusty road.
Suddenly, a break, but unfortunately it was a slope down into a creek bed. “Your best bet is to splash right through,” Brian said. I could see that I would have to go as fast as possible down those rocks and through that water in order to make it back up the slope on the other side. I watched a couple go ahead of us, and then Brian, and then, well, me.
The plunge downward felt like when you’re a little kid and you jump from something way too high. You just leap and you wait as you come down, hoping but also knowing that you were not going to fall. I splashed and pedaled, and I got about halfway up and then tanked. Okay, yet another break for me. Still, I had done it.
Pedal, peh-dahl PEH-DAHHHHL, ARGH. Hack, hack went my gasping lungs. I was gulping in air but none of it felt like it was going into my lungs. Instead, there was a bubble growing in my throat, pressure that felt like rising vomit. Was I going to puke? On my bike? That was a new one. But Brian said, “No one I’ve ever taken has puked yet,” and that snapped me right out of it. Brian said I wouldn’t puke, and so I didn’t puke.
We just kept going up, and the road was beginning to both reach up and curve back and forth, hugging the side of the mountain. Fairly quickly the side of the path became pretty sheer drops, with just some gray scratchy brush as a border. When we reached a kind of cement bridge, Brian said, “Okay, that was the worst of it. From now on it is going to be a lot more gradual, you’ll see.”
I hoped so. I just kept gasping. I thought the whole state could hear me breathing. I felt embarrassed by my needy lungs. I wondered if I could really keep doing this. I found myself thinking of childbirth, and how you suddenly pull within yourself to just get through a moment. You find it somewhere, your step to the next moment. You stay alive moment by moment, through the intense laboring of your body.
It occurred to me that I could turn around but that thought lacerated me. No. I wanted to get up there so badly. This is what it is about. This is it, my joy. My highest height. I wanted to really mountain bike, not just ride through woods and up the hills near Boston, where I live. I wanted mountains, solitude, silence — and me.
But it hurt so much. And yet, after a while more, I noticed that I was actually pushing hard but not horribly hard. We could even chat a little. “See, some people think at first, ‘Oh, it’s just the placebo of finishing a really hard part,” Brian said, “But it really does get easier at this point.” We stopped for a photo and a breath by a large rock he called Pensive Rock, and he told me to look back at where we’d come. It was so far back, in just a few minutes! The entire Montecito Golf Club was a small flat green rectangle set into the lower mountain.
Brian’s first major landmark was just after we’d done 1,000 feet: two large power lines. This was after about 2.5 miles of climbing. We dismounted and took pictures and he joked about how he sometimes does chin-ups on the bars of the tower. Ha ha. But I’m sure he was not joking. He was young, strong, happy, and on the top of the world, more or less.
But I was with him. I was feeling breathless at this point but in a good way. So proud. In awe of the view, the gentle gray-green of the tree line that fell away beneath us, almost like receding waves. The light metallic purple of the ocean beyond. Purple ocean’s majesty.
We did just a little more, because I wanted the challenge of singletrack riding. “Try to look only at the road ahead, like 20 feet ahead,” Brian coached. That was good advice. Looking only ahead focuses you so that you only plan and you do not look at what’s right under you. You look, you decode the obstacles, you hang on. At this point my tendonitis in my forearm was feeling ominously tight. I knew I was tired but I also felt the crackle of excitement around me so — why not? But the narrow road, the close cliff, and the new boulder-studded path was why not. I stood still to catch a break and just like that, I fell over onto the rocks. A standing fall. I knew this meant I was too tired to do more.
We turned around. Going down the fire road took maybe 15 minutes. The ride down was tough in a different way, the navigating of the road surface through the high speed, trying not to shoot over the edge of the cliff. For the most part, it was okay to ride in the smooth parts right at the side of the mountain, away from the edge. But sometimes the better choice of road was closer to the edge. At those times I opted for the center, to basically bounce right over the rocks. Most of the time this was fine, but you have to be careful when you feather brakes on rocky surfaces; you could end up spinning out your back tire. This happened but only in a minor way. I mostly just kept hurtling downwards, until we finally came to the “chossy” part at the beginning (chossy is a word from 4-wheeling, and it means chossy). I had to do a lot of sharp, tight steering, braking, looking ahead, and quickly planning, but suddenly the road was too fast for my brain, and I crashed. However, I was still standing, so it did not count as a fall.
And it was over. We were back on paved ground, among people, cars, and houses. I had to come down, and get into my life on land again. I was no longer high in the mountains. But — I was still way up high.