Feb. 19th '04

Michel had lobbied for a significant ride for several weeks. He had a window of opportunity in the third week of February during his school’s week of vacation. The weather had been wet and uncooperative for weeks. On this Thursday the rains relented and allowed the bikin’ fools to venture out on a six and a half hour ride. It was a new route. It was a ride that had never been done by anyone to our knowledge.

The plan was decided only moments before the ride. The route would be a Girl Scouts with a Wild Lilac option and finishing with a St. Helena Downhill. The Girl Scout loop can be completed in two and a half hours under perfect conditions with no stops. The winter rains had torn up the Oat and passage was slightly slower than optimum. A flat tire added a few more minutes and lunch at Pocai took the better part of an hour.

The weather was cloudy. There was no forecast for rain though it seemed threatening all day. The cloud cover was mostly high, but occasional layers of lower clouds threatened to make liars out of the weather people. The temperature was in the low fifties. It was ideal for riding but chilly when we stopped.

We encountered the wild poodles near View Rock. The two, small poodles appeared to be by themselves. There was no human in sight, and none appeared immediately. The dogs ran ahead of us for a half mile to the saddle. There I could see a person high on the rocks. Why the poodles got so far away was a mystery. We pressed on and struggled up the steep upper section. This energy draining section was no easy task. The rocks were wet and slippery.

Once over the top the terrain sailed past a much greater rate. We passed the wind cave, down the hill to the Cougar Pass turnoff. The climb up to the rock field was easy. Finally we descended down to Pocai camp for a much needed snack and a little R&R. I gave Shawn a call to see if he was interested in joining us at RLS for the Downhill section of the ride. It was Megan’s birthday and they naturally had other plans. He wouldn’t regret it. Our last run down the St. Helena Downhill was under the nicest conditions that we have ever seen. The trail was smooth, grassy and pleasant. Not so this time. Lucy was busy also, she would have to wait for her first passage of this classic bikin’ fools ride.

While dining at the camp, Michel noticed a plastic piece sitting in a white pail. I had seen it also and didn’t think too much about it. He pulled the piece out of the pail. Low and behold it was a killer, mountain bike front fender. It appeared to be in perfect condition. I fitted it to my bike and gave Michel the smaller splash guard that I had been using. The fender worked flawlessly. We both experience less water splash.

The short climb from Pocai yields to a prolonged downhill ride. A couple of miles are all downhill. It was during this section that I debated what would be faster: The Girl Scouts or the Wild Lilac. We decided that the W.L. trail would be nearly as fast and provide the opportunity to hike, thus saving the pedaling muscles. The judges are still out on that item. The only problem confronting us was a mild stream crossing across Van Ness Creek. We both were able to make it but not without shedding my new fender. While I was precariously poised on a large rock, the fender popped off and was taken away by the swift moving water. I thought it was gone but luck prevailed and the thing stopped just a few feet downstream. Michel performed a delicate balancing act and was able to retrieve the fleeting fender from a nearby rock.

Time was becoming a factor. Although the days are slightly longer in February, we knew that daylight would run out around six o’clock. It was 4:20 as we began the steep hike up the Wild Lilac Trail. Only a few short sections were rideable. But the hike didn’t last too long. It took a great amount of energy to get to the top of the hill. Eventually, however we did and took a short break to assess our situation. The sky was solid overcast and the sun was out of sight. Had we been able to see the sun we might have decided to simply ride down highway 29 to town. This would take only minutes. But Michel insisted that the French language has no word for ‘impossible’. We were on the verge of an epic ride and to bail now would deny us the glory of having accomplished a major feat.

The dash downhill to the parking lot was a welcome change from the trudge uphill. It took only a couple of minutes to get to the path leading back uphill on the west side of 29. This uphill section was mild compared to the hike-a-bike that we endured on the W.L. It took a short period of time to reach the monument to Robert Lewis Stevenson. From there the we dropped down to Silver Street and made the transition to the Stillbad cut-off. There was concern in my mind that the ranger may be at the residence and Silver Street leads precariously near the house. The cut-off was in terrible shape. Many large trees had come down since the last passage and many young trees had grown to interference height. The going was slow at a time when we needed to shred.

Finally we reached the Silverado Ranch Road and immediately started pedaling towards Turk’s Head. Although we could not see the sun, we knew it was near the horizon and we had a long way to go. The ride to the Napa River was routine and uneventful. The road was fine and not washed out. We didn’t make the usual stop at Turk’s Head and pressed on down the beginning of the St. Helena Downhill track. For the first few hundred yards we sped along making good time, But then we encountered the first of several delays that we could not imagine. The trail was blocked with large piles of brush that had clearly been put in place to discourage wayward bikers such as ourselves. I knew that the terrain would open up. We struggled through the many barriers. There was a large rock placed strategically in the way on a technical drop-in near the safety spot. Once past these obstacles we proceeded directly to the grassy knoll and the thrilling drop to the side-hill trail.

At this point the light was noticeably fading. We had a long distance and many challenges ahead. I had been thinking that the alternate shortcut might be the way to go. We rode for a half mile or so along the side-hill trail. Michel sensing potential trouble with the daylight, shredded at a phenomenal speed along the narrow, tricky path. Any mistake along this part of the ride could result in a catastrophic tumble far downhill. At the head of the shortcut we climbed over the fence and followed the tracks previously established by Shawn, Megan and myself. This provided another section of steep, grassy downhill often too steep to ride as I hit the dirt more than once. Form was no longer a luxury. We had to get to the ranch road before it became completely dark. There was no moon at all. The cloud cover would usher in total darkness quickly after the sun set.

We proceeded to the creek crossing that we had discovered on the previous ride. We quickly crossed and began to navigate towards the ranch road. On the previous ride we had taken an errant direction, even though Shawn lobbied for what turned out to be the right course. On this darkening day Michel and I headed in a direction that we thought would bring us to the road. However we immediately came to another stream. That made some sense in my memory of the area. The darkness continued to settle upon us. I could see the top of terrain that gave me guidance. As we proceeded though the woods we came upon another stream, this one bigger and unexpected. Now some doubt rose in my mind. Would this be another wild goose chase in the dark woods. I thought that in the worst case scenario we could follow any one of the streams to Lake Ghisolfo. But that would be intensely difficult. We crossed the steam and proceeded in the direction that seemed right. Shortly we came upon yet another stream, this one with a fifteen foot deep, steep gorge. We didn’t have time to explore a better crossing. We could see that animals had used the game trail we stood on to jump across the gap. With the help of a large branch that spanned the gap, we managed to get our bodies across the gap and passed the bikes over the dangerous crevasse. I could see open area ahead. We pressed uphill to discover that we had come out in exactly the right place. PHEW!

Now we would experience the second delay. The rancher had allowed cows back into the area and they had hammered the once pristine road into a muddy, rough nightmare. Areas that we shredded at warp speed just a week ago were now a bummer. To make matters worse, I noticed that my rear tire felt squishy. Sure enough I had a leak. I elected to pump it up and ride on. The hills that we could ride under ideal conditions were sloppy and rough. We had to walk several sections. My phone rang. It was Shawn wondering where we were. I explained that we were still in the woods and would not likely make it in time for a beer. They were headed out to Megan’s b-day dinner.

From this point we had to employ our experience of the moonrides. The road could be seen as vague and faint. Ditches and water bars appeared only as dark areas. It was impossible to distinguish from shadows or dark colored earth. Often one needed to ride into the void, no navigational assistance could be divined from the darkness. Needless to say our speed was checked when we started the final downhill run to civilization.

At the bottom of the hill the gate was closed. That was not a problem except that I did not realize that I had stopped in a deep puddle until I got off the bike. One foot had remained dry for the entire ride. Now both were soaked. But it did not matter. We had overcome much greater concerns. Though fleeting, we began to sense the flood of joy that comes with completing epic events. All that was left was to get to the Calistoga Inn and enjoy a glass of Randy’s great beer.