The Avalon Circle of Death Ride
Like so many unfortunate events in my life, this all seemed like a good idea at the time. I swear! Looking at the mountain bike trail maps showed a route circling the town of Avalon. This was new from our visits many years prior as the only way out of Avalon was a truly hellacious climb heading toward the airport. And this narrow paved route is shared with vehicles on their way to other parts of the island. Granted the traffic is very light, but the road is narrow and crazy-steep.
This loop route would allow us to climb out of Avalon on a somewhat less steep dirt route with no traffic. We would then ride along the island’s spine for a while, slowly climbing to a maximum elevation of about 1,700′, followed by a screaming descent back down into Avalon on the pavement. A narrow road isn’t a problem if you’re moving at or above the speed of regular traffic. Or so the theory I pitched to Jeri went. The total length was “only” about 13miles, half of which I gleefully pointed out was downhill. What’s not to like?
Sure, there were all those red portions on the route map, signifying very steep grades. But we had done worse (um…years ago!) and besides, that’s probably only there to scare the tourists. We were too smart for that. Or at least I was.
I was a little unsure of our timing. We would arrive in Avalon at 10:15 AM and have to board the ferry back by 4:30 PM or we were spending the night. But more important than missing the ferry was missing a bacon and cheese omelet at Jack’s Original Kitchen. They officially close at 3 PM, so I figured we needed to be in the door by 2 PM. So, the goal was to be back in town by 2 PM. That gave us 3:45 to do a measly 13 miles, half of which I repeatedly kept pointing out was downhill. How hard could that be? Piece of cake!
Well, there are always a few complications. Minor things, really, nothing to worry about. Complication 1 was that we planned this loop bike ride for the fairly cool month of April, the 29th to be precise. Turned out that ended up smack in the middle of a Southern California Santa Ana Wind event. When the Santa Ana winds blow, air off the high desert flows down into the Los Angeles basin and is heated by the resulting compression. It ends up being much hotter at the coasts than in the actual desert. That, and it can be extremely windy. So after we already had our tickets lined up, the forecast for the LA area was to be in the upper 90s. In god damned April. But was I worried? Hah, no! Catalina is surrounded by the friggin’ Pacific Ocean. That should keep it manageable. Even so, we loaded up out Camelbaks with three liters of water each and carried maybe another liter on the bikes.
Tiny complication 2: The ferry arrived a bit late. Nothing too major, but by god we were on a schedule! And this was further compounded by having to go to the Conservancy office in Avalon to get our bike permit. The upside to this was it’s an annual permit, good for both biking and hiking, so we wouldn’t have to spend time on future trips getting permits. We could just get off the ferry and blow. But not this time, and it was not until 11 AM that we started up the rather steep road out of Avalon. Bah, three hours…still lots of time.
The route, up past the old Wrigley mansion, was pretty steep. The good part is that it was still paved at this point. The bad part was it was full of cruisers in golf carts. It felt great when we finally reached our gated turn off, the dirt road began and we said farewell to humanity. We had a fairly decent dirt road all to ourselves, and there was even some shade. This shade was becoming more of a desirable thing as it became later in the morning and we climbed out of the marine layer. It was becoming, er…hot.
Considering the steepness of the road, Jeri was doing pretty well, I busied myself with observations such as my bike computer wouldn’t display a speed below 2.8 mph. It would just go to zero. I noted that a lot.
As we continued to slowly climb I was trying to get a handle on our timing. This was difficult as our climbing speed was ridiculously slow. But I knew this would (should??) be balanced out by screaming downhills at some later point. And I also knew we could just turn it around at that point and be back in town, all downhill, in 30 minutes. So onward we climbed.
At about 4 miles into the dirt we had reached something of a high point at 1,500′. From here we could see most of the remaining route across the bowl from us and what lay ahead. it didn’t look great. The route ahead was going to drop several hundred feet, then climb up the far side of the bowl before it flattened again. We were at something of a point of no return. If we continued, we were committed to complete the loop as there was no way we were going to climb back up to our current location. I asked Jeri what she wanted to do, and she unfortunately deferred to me. I have shit judgment for these sort of things, so I’m all, “Sure, let’s go!”. I am, of course, an idiot.
As we were treated to our first downhill stretch it became obvious that climbing back up this wasn’t going to be an option. And we also noticed how hot it was getting. It felt as if the dirt road was radiating heat. It was starting to take its toll as our energy began seriously flagging.
It was generally downhill until we reached a saddle and started another long climb to regain the elevation we had just lost. This was the same saddle we had hiked to on our previous visit. Unfortunately bikes weren’t permitted on that trail, otherwise we would have bailed at that point back to Avalon.
The next half mile of climb could charitably be described as grim. I knew I was feeling really bad myself, and I have some experience doing stupid, pointless things. I was becoming increasing concerned with Jeri’s condition by the sound of her labored breathing and her dwindling pace. While I was considering calling a medical emergency and descending via the off limits trail, we stopped, ate and drank a liter or two of water. That seemed to revitalize Jeri and lot.
By this time we were more than halfway around the loop and the climbing had eased considerably. The bacon and cheese omelets still seemed unlikely given our timing. But given our lousy condition it was just important to get the hell out of there.
The route had one more kick in the ass for us. It went past one of the island’s communications towers. These towers are placed…..where class??…at the highest point! So there was one last shitty climb to be done. I’m pretty sure I could smell smoke coming out of my thighs. I’m less sure if I heard a string of expletives behind me as Jeri was breathing too hard to be cursing. Still, we’ve been married long enough for me to know what she was thinking, and it wasn’t pretty. On the bright side (wait, there’s a bright side?) it wasn’t bad enough to make her start sobbing. I’ve done that a few times and it is extremely unsettling to see. I think it’s also considered spousal abuse in 17 states.
Finally cresting at the damn tower we started down, immediately joining the paved road between Avalon and the island’s airport. Well maybe “paved road” is being overly generous. It was more a collection of rough, gnarly, filled in potholes that coincidently happened to be as wide as a narrow road. Yeah, it was still a screaming downhill, but we were screaming for reasons other than I expected.
There can be too much of a good thing and downhills are one of them. This was so steep that I became concerned our old-school mountain bikes with their rim brakes might get so hot from the braking that we’d blow a tire. I’ve seen it happen. and it can be dangerous. Considering our speed and the steep dropoffs adjacent to the “road”, it was pucker time.
Mercifully we eventually came upon a repaved portion of the road and the smoothness allowed us to ease up on the braking. We blew into town, generally adhering to posted traffic regulations (maybe) and made it to the front of Jack’s amazingly just after 2 PM. I grabbed the bikes to find a place to lock them and Jeri headed for the restaurant. They told her they were thinking of closing early that day (it has its charm), but I suspect the desperate, slightly crazed look in Jeri’s eyes made them seat her anyway. A few minutes later I stumbled in and had maybe the best bacon and cheese omelet ever.
Somehow I think Jeri was less than pleased with the day’s outing. I’m not certain why, but I got that feeling from the look received when I suggested this will all seem like a good adventure in a few days. Actually, it’s been more than a few days and it still seems like a really bad idea.
In hindsight (i.e, looking out of one’s ass), the heat was a huge factor. This is a very difficult ride even on a cool day. And although we were drinking at a very high rate, the dry air was sucking out our moisture faster than we were replenishing it. And due to the damned (but good) omelets we felt we were under a time limit, True, it was self imposed, but it kept us from resting as much as we should have to compensate for the heat.
Oh, we found out later it was 93 degrees in Avalon that day. Damnnnn…..
Sadly there are no images of this unfortunate adventure. It was awful enough that neither of us had the enthusiasm to take any. Too bad, as others should learn from our mistakes. I do have an image I stole again from the Conservancy’s website showing the route we took around Avalon. We did it clockwise. Note all the red. It’s such an unpleasant color.
Given the disaster this turned into (surprise, surprise!) I decided to lay low a while before suggesting a mountain biking return to Catalina. I knew I had to offset this death ride somehow. But I’m sneaky, I’ll think of something.