Saturday, October 9, 2010

Twenty-Two Percent

Everything pointed to Noble Canyon as the “must do” ride in the San Diego area. I was heading west on business so I brought my gear with me just in case. Unfortunately it was raining when I arrived (never happens in California according to the song) and forecasted to continue for most of the week. It was beginning to look like an epic missed opportunity.

...but I had come so far and as the week wore on I couldn't bear to write it off, so on Thursday afternoon with drops of rain on the windshield, I grabbed a rental bike and headed east into the mountains to see what the heck might happen.
Rental bike: powder-blue Specialized Rockhopper with hydraulic brakes, X.0 tranny, and the oh so cool Specialized “brain” running the rear suspension.
I was encouraged as I drove through 4,000 feet and the clouds began to thin. By the time I arrived at the trailhead in the mountains, it was a perfectly blue sky and temps in the high 60s. And here I was with my gear and a demo bike at the bottom of Noble Canyon. Things were looking up, literally!

Turnaround at the halfway point
Noble Canyon is typically ridden as a downhill using cars to shuttle to the top via an unmaintained service road. No doubt this has something to do with the 1,700 foot climb from the trailhead. According to the well-inked mechanic at B and L Bikes, if I decided to ride my bike up the service road  I should be advised the grade would be “healthy” and hit 22% in places. So I figured that before I saddled up I would drive some of the service road just to see what 22% might look like...

…well 22% looks pretty intimidating. But that was nothing – nothing – compared to the exposure on parts where the road chiseled into the mountain side. The fun factor was wearing off quickly - even though I was driving a tiny subcompact rental it felt like I was at least 2’ wider than the road and about to topple 1,000 feet over the edge (no guard rail) to a dramatic demise in the canyon below. So I found a turn around and sheepishly made my way back down the trailhead to fuel up, saddle up, and ride back up the service road under my own power to find the renowned Nobel Canyon trail.

I was in granny gear most of the way and once I found my rhythm, I was able to take in my surroundings and even managed to hear the birds overhead between gasps for air. The vistas were incredible both looking up (almost 2,000’ of climbing) and looking down (the ride started at 3,700’). And I will never forget a downright scary hornet’s nest with a huge swarm hovering at the entrance - I immediately went anaerobic in the granny gear in order to get some quick separation.

Alpine meadow near the top
The road was no less scary now that I was on a bike, but it did mean I could hug the mountainside and keep at least 6’ separation between me and the precipice. I took numerous stops along the way to refuel, catch my breath, take a drink, and to consult the map. I was beyond the stretch I had driven in the car, and getting lost here could be a real problem.

I had planned 3 hours for the climb, but after 90 minutes of climbing (from 3,700’ to 5,400’) I found the top of the storied Noble Canyon trail. I took a break for lunch (powerbar), drank in the incredible view, then clipped in and began the descent for which I had worked so hard.

Cactus on the left, nasty fall on the right
I thought the descent would take half the time of the ascent, but recent rains left already technical trails downright treacherous in sections. And the price of failure was high – either a long night waiting for help (or mountain lions) or a mercifully quick fall over some exposed edges. In the end, the descent lasted over 1 hour and took me through the most diverse range of terrains and climates imaginable. At the top it was alpine meadows with huge pine trees, mid-way through the descent was classic chaparral and cacti, and then I rolled out at the bottom into desert scrub. And the terrain was everything from buff singletrack to steep switchbacks and serious rock gardens.

Cattle gate at the bottom
The biggest surprise of the descent was the unique pungent aromas - floral, sweet, spicy, and earthy. They were strong and distinct. I couldn’t name any of them, but I remember at least a half dozen of them. It was like riding through a candy store of fragrances.

Taco stand
After returning the rental, I figured I should get some sand and salt water between my toes so I headed to Torrey Pines State Park to catch the Pacific sunset. Little did I know I was 10 minutes away from yet another once-in-a-lifetime experience. I would witness the rare and mysterious green flash...which was ironic because I had been talking about the green flash with some colleagues just a day or two before. As the last bit of sun dipped below the horizon, it turned from deep orange to bright green for about the last 1.5 seconds as the disk disappeared below the horizon.

So with Noble Canyon and a green flash in the bag, what better way to end than by grabbing dinner at a local San Diego taco stand? Maybe it was my appetite or the Corona, but that $9 dinner platter was the best mex meal in recent memory and was the perfect ending to an epic afternoon.


"Life is not so short but that there is always time enough for one more ride."
-- unknown

1 comment:

  1. It's a good thing that a mother doesn't know about these adventures until they are over. I think I got another gray hair reading about this trail.