All We Do Is Ride Uphill
First-hand account of a bike ride through California.
by Kyle Sparks (

Rob Thompson rides down the Tioga Pass at 55 miles per hour on a loaded touring bike on September 18, 2009. The Tioga Pass without question the fastest descent of our eight-day trip.

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As a photographer, my career has taken me to the far reaches of the world on several occasions. None of my experiences abroad would compare to a recent cycling trip- peddling through my home state, straight uphill. This idea was spawned by stories of trip my dad went on back in 1976. He rode his bicycle across the United States from Oxnard, California to Millinocket, Maine. Little did he know, stories from my dad’s adventure over 30 years ago would inspire a new cycling endeavor. A couple of good friends (Brian Mich, Rob Thompson) and I embarked on an eight-day journey from Camarillo, California to the highest pass in the Sierra Mountain Range. We explored the regions that define California’s wilderness by riding through Lockwood Valley, Los Padres National Forrest, Carrizo Plain, Central Valley, Kings Canyon, Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park. This was the our second touring trip as a group and would prove to be one of the most physically and mentally demanding cycling adventures we have thus far endured.

After we determined logistics for the trip including the starting location, duration and finish point, planning the exact route commenced. To finish within our allotted time frame, we had to cycle approximately one hundred miles per day. Being engineering students, Brian and Rob used some calculations to help plan. The math was very simple: Ten hours of riding each day at a minimum of ten miles per hour and we would be able to make our goals and finish the ride on time. Brian was in charge of finding roads for the ride and he decided to make it a “fun” bike tour by having us ride up hill as much as possible. This probably was in line with Brian’s “Type II” fun motto which clearly states, “not always immediately fun, but almost always fun later.”

What goes up must come down right? I received a few phone calls and emails from Brian in regards to our proposed route. “Kyle, how does riding up Rose Valley sound? I have us climbing General Sherman Highway, while we’re going through Sequoia. We are going to top out the tour at 9,945 feet when we’re in Yosemite!” Everything sounded good to me. I was very confident that we would be able to make our daily goals but when I brought up the proposed route to my Dad, he had a few words of advice. He glanced over the route and said, “This looks really hard, and I hope you like riding up hill.” I explained to him that Brian wanted to do as much climbing as possible and that the purpose of the tour was to climb all day every day. He looked at me with eyes that said, ‘You are going to regret this,’ and walked back over to the couch to finish drinking his ice-cold beer. My reaction was that of defiance. I wanted to prove that our route would be challenging but we would be able to make it to Tahoe. Charge!

The night before we left, Brian, Rob and I were doing some last minute packing and sorting out group gear. The start date for the ride was the second Friday in September so we knew that the weather would be varying: painfully hot coming across the Central
Valley and near freezing at night in the mountains. Bringing the correct gear was essential. We each had windbreakers, raincoats, a lightweight fleece, and a light down jacket for camping at high elevation. We also packed essential camping gear to camp every night, which consisted of a light weight three- man tent, ground tarp, a small camp stove, headlamps, sleeping bags and sleeping pads. In addition I also lugged along one camera, two camera-bike mounts, two lenses, portable hard drive, extra batteries, remote camera triggers, a cleaning cloth and one Band-Aid in case of injury.

Around 11:29 that night we had all the gear sorted out and had one thing remaining to do: print the map. Brain had been saving all of the directions on the internet so all we had to do was hop on the web and print out our route, and other important information including the elevation gains and descents, mileage markers, rest spots, camping locations and turn-by-turn directions. However, Brian’s Internet connection was not working even after trying to fix the problem for at least an hour. We concluded that it was a service provider issue and we had to use a back up plan. We pulled out an old California state map, grabbed a highlighter and started to plot out the route. We had a general idea of the route and major roads but things started to get interesting when Brain pointed at the map saying, “on day four we will camp here, and if we ride one hundred miles on day five we will end up in this general area, then find a place to sleep.”

At 5:30 the next morning all three of our phone alarms rang. It’s time to ride. I got up, stumbled around in the darkness and woke up Brian and Rob. Brian was awake just laying in bed thinking about the ride. Rob looked at me like I just kicked over his bike, pissed. He rolled over and tried to fall back asleep. I told them that I made coffee and it was ready in the kitchen. Little did they know that that was a total lie. I don’t even drink coffee, hot chocolate sure, but coffee not a chance. Nonetheless, Rob ended up crawling out of bed. When he found out that coffee was simply bait to wake him up he grunted and put a pot on. An hour later, a cycling friend of ours, Sam Hewitt, rang the doorbell five or six times then shouted, “Hey, you clowns ready to go yet?” Sam was going to ride with us for the first twenty miles. After the last second packing, we said our good-byes to Brian’s family, telling them that we would see them in Tahoe in a week. We shot a group photo then rode off.

Spirits were high as we peddled down the roads of Camarillo. We had not been on the road more than five minutes before a car laid on the horn. I was up front leading the group and hoped no one was about to get hit. Next I see a little blue convertible pull up next to me with the driver waving frantically. The driver turned out to be my Mom, waving goodbye as she drove to work. The guys had a laugh and we continued to ride through Camarillo towards Oxnard and the Pacific Ocean. We made a quick stop at my house across town to get more tubes, and say hello to my Dad and little brother. They wished us luck, told us to ride hard, have fun and be safe. With that we were back out on the road. At this point I was still up front leading the group when I hear another car blasting its horn. This time it was my ex girlfriend of seven years who I had broken up with two days before. She was the last person I wanted to see, as I was still very emotional about the break up. I pulled off the front of the pack line and Rob rode up next to me saying “Kyle, you have 800 miles and eight days to sort this out buddy, for now just ride it out.” I found this to be really good advice, because in truth all I had to think about for the next week was cycling. With this thought in my mind I jumped on to the back of the pack and kept on pushing pedals.

After a few more miles Sam turned around at a traffic light in the middle of some farm fields, where we exchanged a really corny ‘Lord of The Rings’ joke and parted ways.
Now Brian, Rob and I were in the fields of Oxnard and Ventura. These nice flat roads have great bike lanes. Score! We knew that soon enough the flat roads would give way to our first major climb: Pine Mountain, 5,080ft. After a right turn in Ventura we stated our climb.

The Ventura River Bike path is eleven miles and 700ft of gain from Ventura to Ojai. Growing up I rode on this bike path often and always thought it was a very difficult ride. I remember feeling exhausted every time I rode the path. I discussed this with Brain after we rode the path while we refilled our water bottles in Ojai. This time however, that path didn’t faze me in the least. It was 10am and already eighty degrees. After our brief stop in Ojai the group was back on the road, this time a highway (Route 33), climbing up towards Pine Mountain. Now we could feel the weight of our panniers. I had been standing out of the saddle for a few miles when Rob rode up beside me singing at the top of his lungs. Rob was still comfortably seated using his easiest gear just spinning away. Meanwhile, I was pushing my race bike hard. I have a double, nine speed and it’s not ideal for touring but I was determined to make it work. We both started singing to pass the time while climbing up the scorching hot ascent toward Rose Valley. A few more hours up hill pass by and we pulled off the highway for a water stop.

We came upon a group of college students that were getting ready for a rock-climbing contest and as it turns out we knew several of the people in the contest. They gave us water, Clif bars and parting words ranging from, “That sounds like a great ride,” to, “You guys are nuts!” Not knowing how to react we just hopped back on the bikes and continued up the climb. About a half hour before the sunset we were reaching the summit of the first big climb. This was a huge relief because we knew that the fist hard day of riding was almost over, and after summiting, we descended to stopping point. Day one was a success!

Camping out in the green grass of a firehouse that was right off Highway 33 seemed like a great idea. This area is primarily dry desert-like landscape and why the firehouse had well manicured green grass in front of it was not our concern. We just knew that it was soft and would make a great place to rest our tired bodies. After a quick dinner we laid out the ground tarp under the night sky, put our pads and bags down and quickly fell asleep with very little conversation. Around twenty minutes later were we awoke to a dreaded sound: sprinklers. Seconds later we were under attack by the firehouse’s irrigation system! The group quickly mobilized and moved the ground tarp to another section of grass that was not getting wet at the time. Back to bed. Next time the attack came much quicker and with more force. At this point I was done dealing with moving around and just covered my face with my sleeping bad and hoped that someone else would deal with the problem. Luckily Rob was on it with in seconds, jamming the sprinklers movement with a large stick. With the sprinkler issuer resolved we drifted back into a deep sleep.

Our ride started before dawn on day two as a method of avoiding the extreme heat we would be sure to hit in the Central Valley. Much longer and flatter than the previous day, we rode single file towards Bakersfield, stopping only once to fix a flat tire a few hours into the day. This would be my first of twelve flats during the tour. Several hours later we arrived in Bakersfield, overheated and in need of shade and time off of our bikes. We ended up at a Chinese restaurant and quickly went through several plates of food, and then rested in the shade of some trees. Camping tonight was near the Kern River. During the night a small brush fire started a few hundred yards ways and we rushed over to the area and started pouring water from our bottles on to the flames. We called the fire department and stepped aside when they showed up to extinguish the flames.

Today was much like day two: very long and very hot. We rode 104 miles through the heat, from Kern River to Three Rivers, located just outside of Sequoia National Park. On this day I was given a nickname for the ride, ‘Tipping Rock.’ I had fallen over twice because I was unable to unclip my foot when we came to a stop. Tipping Rock now joined Riding Bear (Rob) and Napping Pony (Brian) in the river to cool off and mentally prepare for the next day of riding. Tomorrow would prove to be one of the most demanding days of the tour.

The group woke in a funk today, setting the stage for some difficult riding. The weather was not great, a light mist and rain clouds filled the sky. Plus, we had a very tough climb in front of us called ‘The General’s Highway.’ This highway goes through
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and its one of the more difficult climbs I have ever done, especially with a loaded bike. We wanted to ride eighty miles through the park today but we were set back by the steep incline, pouring rain and Rob’s swelling right ankle. Coupled with some lengthy sections of 7-8% grade, we ended up only riding thirty miles that day with 6,274 feet of climbing. On days like today we just had one choice: embrace the pain and keep on making progress up the mountain, this was the route we had chosen. After some debate we decided that our original goal of Lake Tahoe was now unobtainable. At night after all the climbing was done we air-dried our gear in a laundry room while playing card games and eating dinner. Due to the rain we slept in the tent, which we found out was falling apart and was leaking in several spots. Rough night, but we were all too beat to care (except for Brian who thought my sleeping pad took up too much room in the tent).

The theme of the tour today was put into words by Brian right after we clipped into our pedals: “It’s not a bike ride unless we ride up hill.” And so, again, we started climbing. Luckily, the Generals Highway only had 2,349 feet of gain and a great thirty-mile descent that that took our 8,747 feet of elevation down to zero. This day would be the longest day of our tour stretching 114 miles.

Now we were only a day’s ride from the mountains of Yosemite. We rode highway 41 from Friant to the southern gates of Yosemite. The 41 is a very dangerous and scary road due to heavy traffic and very large trucks flying by at high speeds. The lack of a decent bike lane added to our concerns. We were relatively close to reaching Yosemite but fifty miles of hot uphill climbing stood in our way. We had been riding for three hours when Rob suddenly jumped off his bike and threw it at the ground. The stress and pain had finally gotten to him. His right ankle, which was now two times the size of his left, had been bothering him for the past three days and he was having a hard time dealing with the pain. Not really knowing how to handle the situation, I rode up to Rob on the side of the highway, got off my bike and sat down next to him without saying a word. Brian rode up a few minutes later feeling the amount of frustration in the air and plopped down next to me.

There we were, three good friends sitting on the side of the road, defeated. We sat there for ten minutes, not knowing what to say to each other. Then I glanced over at Rob, cracked a small smile hoping I wouldn’t get smacked in the face. Rob then put his head in his hands and started laughing hysterically. He got up, jumped back on the bike and continued riding down the road. All I could do was laugh. So, I picked up my bike and hopped on. As the sun was setting we crossed the gates of Yosemite and descended towards a campground in Wawona.

An alarm goes off at 5am. By 5:15 we are up and making breakfast. By 6am the bikes are packed, water bottles refilled and we started climbing. The first climb today was exiting the campground. Literally the second I got on my bike I was in my lowest gear pedaling uphill. A few more hours of climbing and we reached the tunnel that takes you into Yosemite Valley. This was a sight that I have seen many times before, but never from the seat of a bike. Lots of road construction was underway in Yosemite and we ended up following a large group of construction vehicles through the tunnel, which was nice because we knew that no other cars were going to come up from behind us or in front of us as we rode into the darkness.

We emerged three wide from the tunnel with raised arms and smiles that went from ear to ear. We stopped for a few photos and a quick water break. During our short break an elderly couple asked us if they could stand in front of our bikes for a few photos because they wanted to tell their friends back home that they had just ridden up the road from the valley floor a few thousand feet below. They reminded me of my grandparents and I happily shot their photo.
After clipping back into the pedals we made a quick descent down to the valley floor and rode to Yosemite Village for lunch. Feeling sore but reenergized we made our way out of the valley and towards Highway 120 and the final climb of the tour: the Tioga Pass. Climbing up the 120 was very similar to many of the other climbs we had accomplished thus far; hot, steep and seemingly never ending. For some reason it felt like we were riding uphill the whole day, and my biggest problem was I could never rest, just stand up and push a big gear the whole time. We arrived at a campground in White Wolf, physically exhausted. Brain and Rob both fell asleep just lying on top of their sleeping bags, not bothering to inflate their sleeping pads.

The final day of riding was here! I felt like a robot. Wake up, make food, pack camp, get on the bike and start climbing. The pain in my legs was extreme but I made them work. I just had to think about moving them in a continuous circle. Several more miles of climbing found us in Tuolumne Meadows, where we stopped and had a quick lunch. By this point in the trip meals were down to science; everybody would play their part in preparing the meal and we would be eating within minutes of stopping. This meal consisted of canned soup, Clif bars and bread. From Tuolumne Meadows the 9,945 foot
Tioga Pass was only nine miles away. Rolling out from lunch we were passed by another cyclist out on a day ride. For reasons beyond me I broke away from Brian and Rob and took off after the cyclist to try and race him up the climb. I was up out of the saddle pushing big gears, chasing him down, catching glimpses of his bright cycling kit a few turns ahead of me. After three miles of this I felt the burn in my legs and sat back down, switched to an easier gear and just kept pedaling up the road. After a mile of riding somewhat slow I looked back and saw Rob two hundred yards behind me charging. I knew that it had now become a race to the top of the pass. I clicked down three gears, stood up and started cranking up the climb, trying to put as much distance between Rob and myself as I could.

Now, after eight days of the hardest riding I had ever done in my whole life I was racing flat out at 9,000 feet, going into aerodynamic time trial positions, pushing the hardest gear I could, making my lungs and legs burn. I was not going to let Rob beat me up the climb. I looked over my shoulder and he was gaining on me! I clicked down a few more gears, tucked down to as small of a position as I possibly could and pushed myself to the limits. Looking up the road I could see a row of cars that were stopped and knew they were waiting in line to exit the park. I stood up out of the saddle one last time and sprinted for the finish line. As I came up to the park exit I raised both arms in uncontrolled joy and knew that my tour was almost over. Rob came up thirty seconds later and we gave high fives to each other and everybody else that was standing around in the parking lot. The cyclist that I had chased up the climb arrived a minute before I crossed the line. Brian was not into racing up the mountain and showed up ten minutes later. We celebrated for a while, shot a few photos then talked about the sprint to the finish, how we only had ten miles of riding left, what food we were going to eat that night, and how excited we were to descend the backside of the pass.

As I said before, what goes up must come down. We were standing at the top of the pass, the highest point during our tour, and we knew that it was all down hill from here. We put on our windbreakers, checked our breaks, and got ready to fly down the fastest road any of us have ever ridden. This side of the Tioga Pass is an eight percent grade for ten miles. The group went three wide as we started to make our descent, then we came around a corner where the whole valley opened up and we could see for miles, grasping how steep but straight the road was. The road is cut out of the side of a huge mountain and to our right was a huge drop-off, which appeared intimating but to my surprise was not so bad. I sat up one last time, looked over at Brian and Rob, smiled and placed my hands in the drops. I tucked down into a descending position, took my hands off the breaks and proceeded to pedal up to speed until my legs couldn’t keep up anymore. Right after I stopped pedaling I looked at my speedometer and it read fifty-five mph. I stayed at this speed for the whole descent and at one point; Rob, who was in my draft, came around me doing at least sixty. The sound and force of the wind at this high speed made me feel like I was driving in a convertible sports car on the freeway. This was without question the fastest and best descent any of us had ever cycled in our lives.

After our descent we coasted into Lee Vining, overjoyed that nobody had crashed. With the Sierra Mountains now behind us we rode the last few miles towards Mono Lake, got off the bikes for the last time and collapsed on some picnic tables in the shade. Brian’s Mom and Dad arrived a few hours later and we piled into the car and drove south towards

The ride was everything I could have dreamed of and more. Even though we didn’t make it to the original destination of Tahoe, our goals were accomplished. We were able to experience California in a way was unfamiliar to us by taking on this awesome adventure with great friends, spending little money, and knowing we pushed ourselves mentally and physically. We did this all while simply traveling from point A to point B on a bike.

by Kyle Sparks

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