Cielo is the Spanish word for heaven. Riding around San Diego is a cyclist’s cielo. It is a place where cyclists belong. Coastal flats, bike lanes, lines of cyclists pushing down the road. And how fitting that today we rode out towards an area known as Cielo, Rancho Sante Fe, and climbed towards the cielo on Mount Soledad.
Saturday morning and the Palomar Mountain climb was still fresh and heavy in our legs. But here we were, in sunny San Diego, another cloudless warm day before us. Heavy legs or not – it was time to ride.
Jennifer, Tim, Adam, Chris, myself, and Brad rode out around 10 am. The first part of our ride rolled along the flat coast. The ocean also rolled in waves to our left. We rode in a calm, quiet line – enjoying the scenery, enjoying the warm up ride. It would be best to take this beginning patiently. I knew what was ahead. I knew the hills – the mountains were waiting.
After 30 minutes we decide to head inwards towards the hills. The hills are subtle, but long and grinding. We get antsy and impatient waiting for each other. Brad is the only one that knows the way, Tim probably still has 20 Coors Lights flowing through is veins, Jennifer is ready to surge, I am smashing the hills, and Chris – well, as always, he’s just happy to be in the game, knowing full well he could easily drop all of us in an instant and ride off on his own.
Finally we reach an area far from traffic that snakes through the interior hills in an area called the Elfin Forest. I jump on Chris’ wheel and he leads the way, remembering the route from a group ride he joined back in January. Together, we ride through the Elfin Forest. The forest smells sweet and the trees cover the road in dappled light. We find a rhythm riding over the rolling hills in the winding road. It is the perfect place to ride on a perfect day – a blue sky, the cielo above.
Halfway through the forest, we hear someone baa-ing like a sheep behind us. Or maybe he was moo-ing. These farm sounds have become Tim’s weekend anthem. He baa’s and moo’s incessantly until he takes my wheel. And it may just have been Iowa in late July, a truly Ragbrai-esque moment with the three of us riding at a steady pace up and over the hills.
We regroup before taking a right up towards Ranch Santa Fe – home of the rich, the famous, the starlets that can afford living high in the San Diego hills surrounded by picturesque mountains and blue sky.
Rancho Santa Fe is a series of long descents and hills. All of a sudden my small frame which has been my strength in the hills becomes my weakness descending. I chase the others trying to catch their draft but they slowly, steadily slip away.
But this isn’t a bad place to be. I’m in San Diego, the sun is shining, I’m on my bike – cielo, you can say, heaven for me no matter how far behind I was.
Again we regroup, a common theme when you have six individuals with unique strengths and weaknesses, motivations and drives trying to ride together. The road climbs up, I take Chris wheels to climb yet another long hill out of Cielo before descending again towards the coast.
Back on the coast we are riding south on the 101. It is a welcome respite from the climbing and descending as again we roll comfortably along. At that point, someone suggests Torrey Pines and a descent into La Jolla.
The climb up Torrey Pines is nothing – it is yet another bump in the road after climbing Palomar the day before. Chris disappears, as he has been doing up and over every hill, I take second on the hill with the others a short distance behind. We regroup at the top and consider descending into La Jolla to then climb Mount Soledad – wondering if our legs could handle another epic climb after what has come to be over 7 hours thus far of continuous climbs.
And like any group of crazy Midwesterners shackled by cabin fever for the past 3 months, we decide to take on yet another climb, another epic ride up Mount Soledad in La Jolla.
Jennifer and I get antsy at the top of Torrey Pines and set out towards La Jolla leaving the boys behind. We regroup in La Jolla and Brad begins the lead the way towards Soleded. But Chris and I have been through this before and we realize that we are going the wrong way.
“Where are we going,” we ask, wondering why Brad was leading us towards the cove.
“Up the back way to Soledad,” Brad explains, “on the back way you’ll avoid the widow-maker,” he says.
Apparently, the sketchy right turn that ascends probably at a 20 percent grade and separates the lower half of the climb with the upper half is known as the widowmaker. But the widowmaker is what we want. There would be no back door today, no easy way to slip up this mountain.
Brad looks at us curiously, painfully, and leads us to the beginning of the front face. He immediately resigns from the ride up the mountain, admitting he is in no mood to take on the widowmaker. The rest of us, however, are ready to ride on. I give Jennifer a few warnings about the climb and then once again it is every man/woman for themselves up the mountain.
Immediately the climb turns uncomfortable with legs grinding up and out of the saddle at 48 rpm’s churning approximately 5.8 miles per hour. At a 15 percent average grade, Mount Soledad seems to send you straight towards cielo, or hell. Whichever way you see it.
Chris zips past me effortlessly, moving ahead at what seems like twice my speed and half my effort. My heart rate surges past my threshold and my legs are ready to burst with lactic acid. Along with my head. And my eyes, my back, and every other muscle that seems to be screaming in painful unison to please not throw yet another killer climb at us at 3 hours and 45 minutes into a ride of nothing but climbs.
I am nearly 2/3 finished with the climb when I see the place where I pulled over last time for some much needed rest back when we climbed this in January. Today stopping would not even be an option. Though I wanted, needed the rest it was once again Liz versus the mountain and just like yesterday Liz would again win. My back started to hurt from holding the bike, my feet stomped angrily on the pedals, my breathing was audible and annoying. But up ahead I knew the end was almost near.
Finally, I reach the top and Chris is waiting there.
“No stops?” he asked.
No, no stops. Not today, not ever again. Never again would I be beaten by a mountain, not here, not anywhere. He admits that he had to stop to regroup himself before finishing the final part of the climb. This reminds me that even the best can be beaten by mountains. Even Chris who never seems to waver or fatigue in the face of any challenge – rolling hills, gaps to bridge, gusts of wind. Proof that though the climb is over in less than 10 minutes, it is ten times more painful than Palomar’s 80 minute climb.
Standing on Mount Soledad, we look over San Diego and its surrounding area. The sky is cloudless and blue, the hills are verdant and green, the sun is warm. Yes, indeed this is cielo. To be here, atop this mountain surrounded not only by husband, and coach, but friends that all share this drive to climbs towards the same infinite sky, seeking the same level of pain, the same striving towards a similar heaven in our mind.
This weekend we lived in heaven, we lived a life of cycling luxury with nothing to fill our mind by swim, bike, and run. And some food, and friends. It was a little taste of heaven, a dreamy slice of what life would be life if we immersed ourselves in nothing but what we enjoyed. It was cielo de los cielos – a heaven of heavens for each of us to share.