Bohlman On Orbit

August 10, 2008

Last Friday was Mark Logic’s summer BBQ and in the tradition of things getting better every year, this year it was held in Saratoga Springs. Given that there is some fantastic riding in this area, Evan, John and I decided that we should do some cycling before the BBQ started. We did a quick 9 mile loop up Hwy 9, down Redwood Gulch and then back to Saratoga Springs via Mt Eden and Pierce Rd. It was a great ride to start off the day with.

However, after Evan and I got some food in us and were totally annihilated in foosball we started thinking that we should go for another ride. I’d heard from my friend Bill of this fantastically difficult climb in the area called Bohlman On Orbit. Bill was quite insistent that this was one of the hardest climbs in the area so I suggested to Evan that we give it a go, he was game.

The climb starts right off of 6th Street in downtown Saratoga at an elevation of about 600 feet. After a small bit of residential area the road narrows and the grade increases to about 10%. Ten minutes into the climb the grade had not let up, Evan and I started wondering if it was going to flatten out at all and give us a little break. We jinxed ourselves.

20% Grade on a section of Bohlman

20% grade on a section of Bohlman

Turns out Bill was right, this climb is relentless. The road is filled with switchbacks and they aren’t just for looks, this road seriously needs them. If you don’t find the average grade of 10% challenging enough don’t get depressed, harder sections are ahead.

One of the toughest parts of this climb is the mental exhaustion. Things get challenging when you’re working fairly hard on a climb and the road is steeper than normal yet you look up ahead and don’t quite believe your eyes. You think to yourself, how can this be? A quick check of the cycling computer tells you that you’re on a 12% grade and yet it appears to be flat in contrast to what you will soon be facing. To top things off you can see a corner up ahead and this is the point where the optimistic viewpoint of thinking, “it may flatten out after the bend” is lost.

Pessimism proves to be right as you find out that the climb leading up to the turn is a 20% grade, the turn itself is 22% and then it settles right back down to an all too familiar 20% grade.

After about 1000 feet of this painful climbing there is a Y in the road. Bohlman continues to the right and On Orbit goes off to the left. Knowing that On Orbit is the steeper of the two, Evan and I naturally had to take it.

Riding up On Orbit Evan made the observation that the road is very correctly named because we thought for sure that we had climbed enough to actually be orbiting the Earth. Evan was clearly feeling a bit stronger than I was because all I could think of was how insane this climb is. Shortly after this Evan and I both agreed that to really be into cycling there has to be a part of you that deep down loves pain. So I think we’re in agreement on how difficult this road is.

Life On Orbit isn’t all bad however, the views are quite spectacular and it gives you a great feeling of accomplishment. There’s also one section that is about 1/10th of a mile long where the grade is a very welcome 6% (as a comparison, interstate 70 that passes through the Colorado Rockies is roughly a 6% grade). But make no mistake, On Orbit is brutal and an absolute ass kicker. The average grade is about 14% with sections going up to 22% and is just over a half mile long.

Once you reach the top of On Orbit there is a slight downhill section before it meets up with Bohlman again. The speed of this 100 foot descent feels quite nice and cools you down a bit before the last 500 feet to the top. The climb calms down a bit after it meets up with Bohlman. There is a couple sections with a 16% grade but overall if you’ve made it this far, making it to the top shouldn’t be a problem.

The last half mile or so runs along the ridge line at the top. It’s a perfect time to relax a little bit and look around at what you’ve accomplished. Bohlman is a dead end at the top, however, there is a fire road that continues on and connects up with Montevina Road after about a mile. Taking this will eventually get you close to the intersection of Black Rd and Hwy 17. I think the next time I do this climb I’m going to continue on this path and turn the ride into a loop (Bohlman, Montevina, Black, Skyline, Hwy 9).

So overall I loved the climb. It has all the right ingredients, challenging, beautiful views, low traffic and can be accomplished. You won’t find me doing it every week, but once a month would be fine with me.

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To celebrate Independence Day this year, my friend (and coworker) Evan and I decided that we should spend the day cycling. I live in Cupertino California which gives me the great fortune of having access to some of the best cycling in the country. Right outside my door is a world of fantastic climbs for both road and mountain bikers, it’s quite amazing and unique for an urban area.

Evan is a very experienced and talented cyclist so naturally he brings out the competitive side in me. He’s also in a bit better shape than I am, so when he suggested that we ride from Cupertino to Santa Cruz and back I couldn’t say no and I had a hard time telling him that I was a little worried about being able to do such a ride. I’ve ridden centuries before, but I’ve never done a ride that is this long with so much climbing.

So the plan was to start at my place early in the morning (8am ish). It’s roughly a 20 min ride from my place to the bottom of Redwood Gulch, the first major climb for the day. Redwood Gulch is really a fantastic road, very light traffic, gorgeous scenery, fairly short (0.75 miles) and very steep (at least 25% grade in places).

At the top of Redwood Gulch you meet up with Highway 9. Hwy 9 has a fair amount of traffic but is thankfully quite wide and a popular ride for cyclists so cars are fairly aware of your presence. The grade is more relaxed at 8% but still a lot of work. At 2500′ you reach Skyline (Highway 35) and the top of the climb. It’s a fun and easy descent on the western side of Skyline all the way to Santa Cruz so Evan and I made pretty fantastic time. We even got to see the tail end of a parade along the way.

Evan has a fantastic obsession with food so once we got to Santa Cruz we stopped for a quick lunch. After a bit of mexican food and some time trying to convince Evan that the hostess was totally into me and my spandex, we got back on the road.

The climb back up Hwy 9 is pretty easy. There is number of towns along the way so traffic can be kind of heavy, but the sights help to make up for that. When we got to Boulder Creek we decided to take the long way home via Big Basin State Park. Taking this route added a dozen miles to our trip and about 800′ of extra climbing but it’s such a beautiful place that we thought it would be well worth the effort.

Right outside of the park I had my first feelings of fatigue and I knew what the climb was like getting out. We took a short break, got some cold water and chatted with one of the park rangers. This guy actually suggested that we find a motorcyclist to pull us up the climb!

I actually made it out of Big Basin without any trouble at all, but the final section climbing back up to Skyline was pretty brutal on me. I made it but not without a fair amount of cramping.

I thought we were home free, but our descent down Redwood Gulch was a bit problematic. That road is so steep that Evan’s breaks were fading and the heat buildup actually caused his wheel to fail. I ended up riding back to my place and grabbing the car to go pick Evan up.

All in all the ride was right around 90 miles with 7300′ of climbing and it took us around 5 hours 30 min to complete it. That’s not too bad given that the climb up the eastern side of the mountain would be at least a category 1 climb if not a beyond category climb in the Tour.