Highway 33

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“Go up Highway 33,” Edward said. The name didn’t exactly entice. “It’s about 15km, 3-4% average gradient.”  That sounded a little more appealing. I had a long ride and tired legs so I figured a new climb would be encouraging, mentally and physically. “Okay,” I agreed, lazily kitting up for what sounded like most boring climb ever.

By the time I got to the four-way stop in Ojai where the 33 started, my legs had gone from near-death to warmed up, partially thanks to the hour it took to ride there, partially thanks to the two energy bars I had already consumed. Through the stop sign, the road undulated and then, just as Edward said, I saw the bridge next to the quarry. It was the steepest gradient I had seen in California. I geared down and perked up…for about a second.

“What the?! Ouch!”

I knew I was tired but as soon as I put some power down my quads ached with the wrath of a brutal week of training. I was tickets. In the box. Smashed. I looked down to see if my legs were still attached to my body. They were there but “dead weight” didn’t really begin to describe it. Thankfully, the steep section was short lived and the gradient mellowed out to the subtle 4% I had been sold on as did the burning in my legs. Although, that didn’t stop me from keeping in the 25.

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USA’s smallest post office.

Past the USA’s smallest post office (Ripley’s Believe it or Not approved), the trees turned to shrubs and the valley revealed itself. It was a long valley and the road appeared to follow the length of the ridge but I couldn’t see exactly where the summit was. No matter, I had time on my side and, as I reminded myself, these were the good days. The “just go ride” days that, no matter how awful your legs are, leave you feeling happy.

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That zen of climbing was why I liked mountains. It was really one of the core reasons I liked cycling. But it had been an hour. Where was the flipping top?! I started to calculate my ride time. I would be pushed for daylight soon but I couldn’t abandon my hour-long investment. I had to get to the top.

As soon as you start wondering how much longer a climb will take, time changes. Usually it starts to drag but today it was ticking by faster than I could imagine. Without any power in my legs I was stuck on slow. I couldn’t get to the top any faster and sunset wasn’t going to wait either. IMG_2814

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The lookout…more like the fake-out.

As my mind whirled, suddenly I realized I was on a sweeping switchback. “The summit!” I screamed silently to myself. I picked up my cadence, eagerly spinning to the lookout I had spotted. I approached the top, suddenly feeling pleased with my effort but, in an instant, my spritely cadence ceased: the road hair pinned.

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I couldn’t tell if I was disappointed, annoyed, curious or excited because I think I was feeling all four emotions. Without a second thought, I rode past the lookout (a.k.a. the fake-out), determined to find the real top.

Things got a little confusing after that as the road began to undulate and slowly sanity regained control. I had to turn back if I was going to be home before sunset. I gave myself five more minutes and after eleven, I started my descent. I stopped quickly at the lookout, admiring the stripe of concrete that veined along the wall of the valley. I turned to see what I thought had been the final switchback and above that I spotted a road. The road must continue and bend back on itself, I concluded. “That must be the summit!” Begrudgingly but sensibly, I continued on my way home.

A week later, with fresh legs and a Strava to settle, I went back up in what felt like half the time, rode the 500m I had been short and reached the summit. Highway 33, not so boring after all.

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The lookout the distance and the “final” switchback below it.

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