On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 2/1/2014
Name that summit!
In 2009, I wrote a column in this space called Hell's Hairy Half-Dozen about some of the steeper climbs and descents amidst the rumpled topography of the North Bay. In that piece, and in a few others over the years, I have pondered on the differences between our climbs and some of the legendary ascents of the great European races, from Gavia to Galibier, from Angliru to Alpe d'Huez.
It isn't my intent to rake over that same topic again today. But I have been thinking about another way in which our landscape of hills and ridges and pocket canyons varies from the French and Italian and Spanish landscapes we see when we watch the races on TV, or on the rare occasions when we are lucky enough to travel there and pedal our bikes around those wonderful roads. This difference has to do with the naming of the roads and of the summits the roads cross.
I have previously recommended a visit to the great Climb By Bike website, and I do so again. It's a delightful way for a cyclist to waste time, browsing through their almost countless inventory of elevation profiles for climbs, both the famous ones and the ones you've never heard of. Most of the famous ones are highlighted and easy to find. But if you dig a little deeper, you will begin to uncover dozens--no, hundreds--of minor climbs scattered around the French and Italian countryside. Dinky, piddling bumps, in many cases, and yet they all share one distinction with their grander cousins in the Alps and Dolomites: they all have names for their summits, and they all have nice signs on those summits proclaiming the names for all to see (and where you can stop and take your picture, to prove you did indeed climb that hill). It gives them a sense of cachet, of being something special. And it allows the cyclists who climb them to bask in the glow of that distinction…to feel as if they have done something special.
As an example, I'm including a photo from the summit of Col de Moissiere. Never heard of it, right? Neither had I, until we improvised a route over it as a detour around a closed road (over a more famous summit). Moissiere is not a huge col and certainly not a famous one, but it's a fun climb and an even better descent off the far side. However, without the sign at the summit, it would have gone unremarked and mostly unremembered…just a few hilly miles in the remote French backcountry. With a sign though, it became a significant item on our day's adventure and definitely worthy of a commemorative photo.
Over here, in California, we certainly do have our named summits, and we honor them accordingly: Tioga Pass and Monitor Pass, Lassen Summit and Etna Summit, etc. But these named summits represent only a small fraction of all the climbs we have in our portfolio. The vast majority of our passes, including many that are seriously epic, live out their lives in anonymous obscurity. I believe we're seriously shortchanging ourselves here in California by not assigning cool names to the tops of all the climbs we do have…hundreds of them.
Looking around the North Bay, just this one small chunk of real estate, I see many classic climbs for which we have no names. All we have are the names of the roads that contain the summits. To be fair, we do have road names and they don't have many of those on the roads of Europe, aside from some numerical designations. So we can say we climbed Trinity Grade or Pine Flat or Fairfax-Bolinas Road, but that's really pretty thin in the glory department. There is nowhere where you can get your picture taken, standing in front of a sign announcing the top of the climb.
So I'm proposing, with tongue only slightly in cheek, that we name all, or at least many, of our bigger, better summits. And just to add some Euro-buzz to the name game, we can adapt the naming conventions from the old countries. From France, we can borrow Col and Côte; from Italy, Passo and Colle, From Spain, Alto. We can even co-opt Mur from the Belgians and Berg from the Dutch…all nifty, classy-sounding monikers for our mountains. And because this country has such a polyglot, melting pot approach to language, we can mix them all up in any order we please.
How about Col de Cavedale? Can you see the sign there on the summit, with its elevation numbers proudly on display? Or how about the three peaks on the Geysers? The first could be Passo dello Hawkeye, in honor of the ranch at the summit. The second, smaller climb could be Côte de Grenouille, a salute to nearby Frog Rock. And the last, highest summit could be Alto de Mercuryville.
Climbing to the top of Mount Tamalpais needs no special name. We all know what that one is, although a sign on the highest ridge would be nice. But what if you're just riding from Bolinas to Fairfax…just over the shoulder of the mountain, but not to the summit? Don't you think climbing to and crossing the ridge at the West Ridgecrest junction is worthy of note? Hell yes, it is. That's a major ascent. How about Colle di Ridgecrest? Or--a little further up the road--Passo Pan Toll at the Ridgecrest-Pan Toll junction (another summit worthy of note).
For a short but steep wall, we could use Mur or Berg. Take the last, wicked pitch up to the Point Reyes Light Station, overlooking Drakes Bay: how about Drakesberg? And then there's Lake County, which reminds us, in its rustic way, of Appalachia. We can adapt their term for a pass: Hopland Gap. That has a nice ring to it. We don't stop calling the whole road Hopland Grade, which is a fine name. We just stick a sign in the ground at the top of the hill, with "Hopland Gap" and the altitude printed on it, and with a view of the lake in the background. I guarantee you it wouldn't be long before you'd start seeing shots on people's blogs or Facebook pages of them standing by their bikes in front of the sign.
I could go on and on. The climbs and summits are legion, not just in the North Bay, but throughout the state, and most are begging for a little bit of color, for the imprimatur of authenticity and gravitas that a good name and a handsome sign would confer. We all know how cool it is to finally chug up the hill and see the sign saying Ebbetts Pass or Col d'Izoard or Passo dello Stelvio. So why are we denying ourselves all that fun with the many, many climbs we have around here? Our goal should be to identify and name at least 100 new summits in California this year. Then another hundred next year. After about five years at that rate, we might begin to have a catalog of named summits we can really be proud of. If we are indeed the cycling mecca we claim to be, then we ought to put a little more effort into the packaging of our image, and that includes "branding" our climbs…giving them names to conjure with, epic, iconic names folks will revere and remember.
And as along as we're day-dreaming here, how about some mille bornes along the way to the summit? No, I don't mean the little card game. I mean the actual milestones at one-kilometer intervals along the shoulders of French roads. On big climbs the stones can carry all sorts of interesting information for cyclists.Take the one on the Col de la Croix de Fer that I've shown here: you get your current elevation, the current gradient, and how far you still have to go to the summit. I can imagine some of you thinking: "TMI! I don't want to know!" But I like having all that information. It keeps me entertained while I'm slogging up the mountain. I don't suppose they'd be much use on our steep little chutes and ladders in the coastal hills, but they'd be great on long climbs like Whitney Portal and Sonora Pass and Nacimiento-Ferguson (another epic ascent without a name or a sign at the top).
Yes, this is only day-dreaming. Nothing to take too seriously. You don't need to remind me that none of this is going to happen in our current budgetary climate, with every nickel squeezed so hard the indian jumps on the buffalo. But if they can do it in Europe--not to mention laying down pavement as smooth as silk on even the tiniest mountain roads--then I don't see why I can't at least pose the question: if they can do it, why can't we?
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org