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John  Must Do Climbs

 by: John Summerson  9/15/2010

A Gathering of Climbers

The Low Key Hill Climb Series is a testament to the popularity of climbing in the Bay Area of California.  It is a series of climbing-only races that are held annually each fall.  Each year it includes 8-9 hills and the events are contested weekly.  Due to the multiple climbs available Low Key offers a wide variety of challenges and normally includes several of the most difficult area ascents.  Climbs used vary each season and typically mirror those that are abundant locally which might be described as short and sweet (steep).  In fact there is a lack of flat roads to ride in the area.  Cyclists must often climb to ride measurable distances which has produced many solid climbers and a wide interest in this cycling sub specialty.  As such the series is quite popular with an average of 80-100 riders competing each week.

The event was founded by two local cyclists, Kevin Winterfield and Dan Connelly, as a way to allow non elite riders to compete on the hills.  When both moved out of state Low Key was suspended for a time but re-emerged when Dan returned to the Bay Area.  His intimate knowledge of local hills and appreciation for climbing by bike is one reason the series has enjoyed success.  Others include the area’s great hills and the opportunity to compete each week.  The events depend on volunteers but there is usually no shortage of those interested in assisting and riders that help out get a break on entrance fees.

Mt Hamilton

Almost to the top of Mount Hamilton

The abilities of those that participate span a wide range and include a few serious amateurs but are mostly recreational riders, some of whom have gone on to become successful racers.  All riders are welcome to compete as the philosophy of the Low-Key series is “to allow each cyclist, no matter what his or her level, no matter what his or her speed, to establish goals, and meet them. It's all about the hill, the rider, and being at one with the bike”.  Speaking of bikes, the type of bicycle used varies as well.  The events have seen recumbents, tandems and some unique special machines so bring whatever you think will get you up the hill.  Low Key also has a competitive side as the top riders are honored at the conclusion of the series.


The buzz before the torture begins (photo by Christine Holmes)

The climb selection process is quite democratic as former participants are polled on the ascents they would like to ride.  The event director then makes the final decision of which to include in the series for the following year.  The climbs scheduled to be included in this year’s event (begins Oct 2) include (in order) Montebello Road, Kings Mountain Road, Portola State Park, East Dunne Avenue, Sierra Road, Welch Creek Road, Bonny Dune/Pine Flat, Hicks Road/Mount Umunhum and mighty Mount Hamilton.  All are solid (cat 1 or 2) ascents so no matter if you choose one climb or all nine to ride in 2010 you will not only have fun but get challenged along the way.

If you are looking for a way to motivate yourself to include more climbing in your riding or to simply ride a solid hill, check out the Low Key Hill Climb Series.  It is a great event and supports cycling and climbing in the Bay Area.  For more information about the series you can visit www.lowkeyhillclimbs.com.  Below are stats on some of the climbs to be used in 2010.

Hicks Road North/Mount Umunhum

Total elevation - 2,199 ft - Length - 4.1 miles
Average grade - 10.2% (17%) - Rating - 2.31 (cat 1)

This hill is very steep and scenic and is one of the most difficult in the Bay Area.  The first mile is brutal and after Hicks Road crests, descend a very short distance and turn right on Mount Umunhum. Continue through another very steep mile and the grade eases at bit.  Soon a gate appears. Climb over the gate and ride another 1.2 miles to the end of the legal road. Too bad you cannot legally continue.  Low Key will race to the gate and those stats are 2.9 miles at 10.8% average grade.

Crux stretch - The first mile of the climb which averages 14%.

Directions - From busy Route 85 in San Jose take Camden Avenue south to Hicks Road.  Head west on Hicks for ~5 miles of flat riding/shallow climbing. The listed climb begins where the grade increases dramatically (right after the 2nd of 2 small creek crossings).

Hicks Rd

The top of steep Hicks Road near San Jose

Welch Creek Road

Total elevation - 1,904 ft - Length - 3.9 miles
Average grade - 9.2% (18%) - Rating - 1.80 (cat 1)

An isolated climb, Welch Creek is an amazing road that winds through a preserve and ends at a few houses on top.  It is one of the narrowest roads around and carries the rider over a very variable grade and through tunnels of trees in places.  Its 2nd half is the real test which is mainly double digit grade and contains the max grade of the hill.  The road turns to dirt at the top.

Crux stretch - The final half mile which contains the max grade of the climb.

Directions - From Interstate 680 between Pleasanton and Fremont exit to Calaveras Road.  Head south on Calaveras for several miles to Welch Creek Road on the left where the listed climb begins 0.1 miles down the road.

Welch Creek

A section of narrow and scenic Welch Creek Road

Sierra Road

Total elevation - 1,816 ft - Length - 3.5 miles
Average grade - 9.8% (15%)- Rating - 1.83 (cat 1)

A Bay Area classic, Sierra Road is a regular ascent in the annual Tour of California. Steep over almost its entire length, you will work to get to the top.  It is exposed over much of its route but that exposure does produce great views in places of Silicon Valley.  Near the very top it is a bit surreal as you are surrounded by fields instead of city bustle.  It is a fast descent due to its steep grade.

Crux stretch - Almost the whole route is steep.

Directions - In San Jose on Interstate 680 exit onto Berryessa Road.  Head east on Berryessa for a short distance to Capital Expressway.  Turn left on Capital and Sierra Road soon appears.  Turn right and head up Sierra past Piedmont and the climb begins at Fulbar Court just beyond on the right.

Sierra Rd

A rare ease of grade on Sierra Road              

John can be reached at jsummers@wfubmc.edu

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