My first visit to Yosemite National Park was not by a vehicle.
Nor were my second or third trips there.
I didn’t take a car into the park — or visit Yosemite Valley— until my fourth trip.
I had previously traversed Yosemite via Tioga Road (Highway 120) through the high country on a fully-loaded touring bicycle as part of week-long trips crisscrossing the Sierra via highway passes.
It sounds a tad crazy but it really wasn’t. I essentially motel hopped while lugging my gear and emergency food and other supplies in case I didn’t make it to my pre-booked destinations before nightfall and cycling along narrow mountain roads became a tad too treacherous.
Fully loaded touring is done with a bicycle designed for that purpose with a triple front chain ring with a 9 gear rear cog designed to give you 27 gears but in reality only 16 that are of any use. The frames can also handle up to 50 pounds of gear on panniers on both sides of the front and rear wheels, handlebar bag, and rear rack with another bag attached. I also carried three water bottles on the down tube plus three tucked into the rear of my cycling jersey.
Moving 270 pounds
up Tioga Pass
via pedal power
Toss in what I weighed at the time — 190 pounds — and I was using pedal power to push just under 270 pounds on one trip where I trudged up Tioga Pass on Highway 120 heading west out of Lee Vining. I had extra weight as I was carrying gear for another rider who was on a racing bicycle. It was on the first day of summer 32 years ago. The 3,200 foot gain over 12.9 miles to the loftiest highway pavement in California — Tioga Pass at 9,945 feet — took place while it was snowing.
One third of the way up, Brian who was 6-foot-3 and weighed 140 pounds dripping wet, was shivering even though he had three layers of cycling gear on like I did with summer stuff first, winter clothing next and rain gear last. In a testament to how much energy I was expending working my way up while trying to control the bicycle on a snow covered road, I was able to strip off of my winter and rain layers for Brian who ended up looking like an anemic Michelin tire mascot. I went the rest of the way with just summer shorts and jersey with arms and most of my legs exposed. I didn’t feel more than a bit cold mainly because I was concentrating on keeping going uphill while trying to maintain control of the bike in the snow.
It stopped snowing by the time we reached Ellery Lake. While it forever cemented in Brian’s mind that I was a bit deranged, it was a watershed moment for me as I understood I had endurance to trudge through challenges which kind of made up to a degree for me being anything but a speed demon on a bicycle as my short and sub-mediocre stab at road racing proved. It was a huge boost to my ego given just two years prior I weighed 320 pounds and could get winded walking 10 blocks.
I was getting the same thrill I did as a 6-year-old who would fall over on my bicycle practicing riding in our alley. That happened even though there were still training wheels on my bicycle. After one such spill a neighbor told me I was the most uncoordinated kid he’d even seen. I had no idea what he meant but because of the way he said it I started to sniffle and went to find my mom. She told me I could tell Roy Garner that I wasn’t uncoordinated but was simply lopsided. That is exactly what I did after I marched over to Mr. Garner’s house. I still remember how loud he laughed and how smug I felt.
The importance of not being lopsided carrying 50-plus pounds of weight on a 27-pound bicycle frame can’t be stressed enough. There is less weight obviously in front but you also need to distribute it in a manner that you have control over the bicycle whether it is on a rain-slicked road, cycling a narrow shoulder or descending downhill.
I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you I scared the crap out of myself twice going downhill. You can get pretty good speed when you are heading down a 9 percent grade rolling along with a gross weight of 270 or so pounds.
Going into a curved arch
bridge downhill can be
tricky in a touring bicycle
The first heart-stopper was on my initial three-day shakedown ride. The guy I bought the bicycle from suggested I do such a ride using canned goods to load the bicycle to the max so I could get a good sense of handling and pacing for longer trips.
That inaugural trip was from Lincoln in Placer County to a motel in Truckee, then to a motel in Jackson and then back to Lincoln. It is legal, by the way, to bicycle on the shoulder of interstate freeways in areas where there are no other roads available. That includes segments of Interstate 80 heading up toward Donner Summit and points between Reno and Truckee.
I had weighed down the bicycle accordingly. After virtually going uphill the entire first day, I found myself cresting the summit on Old Highway 40 above Donner Lake. It was early August and my cycling jersey was soaking wet. After a slight pause at the summit to switch to a dry jersey I was feeling really good about myself as I started the descent to the picturesque curved single arch bridge that’s just above the lake. I was so lost in the euphoria that I forgot for a moment I was going downhill into a sharp curve on a 17-pound racing bicycle with 700cc tires. I started picking up more speed than I should have when I remembered I was hurling downhill with 270 pounds. There was no way I was riding a laden down touring clunker that I could do my “trademark” 45-degree lean into the curve that for some reason I had no issue doing but guys that rode with me on recreational rides on racing bikes at times who were far more athletic than me would shy away from as being a bit risky. Even though fully loaded touring bicycles have cantilever brakes that can take a lot more friction heat it was quickly clear to me that I would not be staying in my lane heading into the curve. Worse yet I could see a BMW coming up the road.
I was lucky the driver was looking at the road and not the scenery as he pulled off the asphalt. As for me my heart stopped beating for a good five seconds as the distance quickly closed between my front tire and concrete curbing that — if I hit it with any amount of speed — would likely send my flying over the rail and down toward the area below that is popular with rock climbers.
I ended up brushing the concrete with the outside of my tire, wobbling for a few seconds and then coming to a stop next to the Beamer.
I remember looking up and seeing a man behind the wheel and a woman next to him who both had their mouths hanging wide open.
Most scariest moment
was on descent that’s
part of Death Ride route
And while I’ve had my panniers brushed by drivers of rented RVs coming around blind curves on Highway 395, my scariest moment by far was after coming down Monitor Pass — the mother of all climbs on the five mountain passes that are part of the aptly named Death Ride.
I need to make it clear I was ready for it. I made note of a cattle guard on the downhill that those on racing bikes warned was treacherous. I knew once I summited Monitor Pass at 8,314 feet I was in store for a wild ride as most of the 2,800 foot drop in elevation comes prior to the stop sign to make a right turn into Markleeville at the base of the descent that had an average 9 percent grade. I was also told to keep an eye out for range cattle that often stand in the middle of the highway.
What I wasn’t prepared for was me forgetting a basic bit of knowledge I learned in high school physics regarding air pressure at different elevations and how air acts when heated up.
That morning as I was going through a safety check of my bicycle I noticed the air level in my front tire seemed a bit low. There was no sign of a leak, however. So I pumped it up to the recommended pressure.
One small problem: The recommended pressure is for sea level. The motel I was staying at by Topaz Lake was 200 feet shy of a mile high at an elevation of 5,080 feet. It also wound up being a warm late July day. I ended up riding the brake as much as I safely could on the way down the western slope of Monitor Pass. About three cranks after I turned right at the stop sign the tube in my front tire literally exploded due to the heat buildup from the brakes on the rim. A minute or so earlier if that had happened I’m not too sure I’d by sharing my lapse in judgment today.
Rest assured changing a tire on a touring bike is a royal pain as you’ve got to remove the bags, the racks as well as wrestle with the rest of the bicycle.
Fully loaded touring gives
you sense of state’s vastness
I got hooked on the idea of fully loaded touring the second year of bicycling and the first year of three back-to-back years of logging in excess of 10,000 miles a year pedaling all over creation.
It gives you a great sense of the vastness of California that you can’t get zooming along in a car. It is also a great way to reset your outlook on life given you are essentially cycling, eating and sleeping day in and day out.
I admit I do press the envelope a bit as my idea of what constitutes a fun fully loaded touring trip was riding 80 to 120 miles a day and getting in as much elevation gain as possible. Did I mention I suspect the delivery room doctor dropped me on my head?
I did dial that mileage obsession back when touring with others who would simply take their racing bicycles while I was their pack mule on wheels. I learned to do that the hard way. A 130-mile ride from Lee Vining to Sonora via Tioga Pass was a bit too much as we hit darkness outside of Jamestown on Highway 49 and didn’t reach the Best Western until after 9 p.m. when all the nearby restaurants and stores had closed.
The day before I had run out of water heading up Conway Summit heading toward Mono Lake. The two college kids riding with me hadn’t filled up their water bottles at the last stop and had mooched water off me.
They had gone ahead. Meanwhile I was grinding my way up the climb on a 90-degree day without a drop of water left. When I caught up with them on the outskirts of Lee Vining, Brian made a smart-mouth remark about me being an old man as he drank from a bottle filled with water he had taken from me. I told Brian — the 6-foot-3, 140-pound skinny as a rail guy I mentioned previously — that If he could walk my bicycle to a gas station/convenience store just up ahead I’d buy him anything he wanted. I can still hear the sound of Rob laughing after Brian struggled walking with my bike laden with gear that weighed 80 pounds before he lost his balance trying to walk in cycling cleats and stumbled to the ground.
Those two days led up to my collapse on Sonora Pass with my head going downhill where Brian — in a panic — tried to revive me by pouring water into my mouth against, what I was told later, Rob’s advice.
Almost drowning on 90
degree day at 8,800 feet
in middle of a highway
What happened next as told by Brian and Rob, a nurse who had been at the Marine training camp on the other side of Sonora Pass happened by, stopped, took the water bottle out of Brian’s hand, tilted my head, and managed to get water out of my lungs. That was the day I almost drowned lying with my head going downhill in the middle of Highway 108, on a 90-degree day at 8,800 feet.
When I came to I was being put into the back of a Tuolumne County ambulance I’d find out later was operated by Manteca District Ambulance.
I ended up spending the night at Tuolumne General Hospital in Sonora in the ER. Between the ambulance ride and my stay in the ER sleeping on an exam table for a good 12 hours, they dripped almost five IVs into me.
The ER doc, who appeared to be in his 50s, told me it was by far the worst case of bonking — the severe depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles — he had ever seen.
Two days later I was back on one of my racing bicycles.
Since then my preferred way of enjoying the Eastern Sierra, Yosemite, and Death Valley has switched to what some have called aggressive day hikes.
Somewhat bizarre snippets of advice learned the hard way on what not to do aside, nothing matches the thrill and sheer joy of exploring the world on a bicycle.
It literally is the same feeling I got as a “lopsided” 6-year-old venturing outside with training wheels in the alley behind my home in Roseville.