58.72 Miles; 8,017 Feet of Gain; Banning, CA to Big Bear, CA
After a fitful night's sleep in Banning, we got up early knowing that today was going to be a crux ride. Since beginning the tour, we had cast nervous eyes ahead to Big Bear knowing that we had over 8,000 feet of gain to do in a day. I slept terribly thanks for uncertainties about my brake and whether it would perform well on the rest of the route (or at least until I found a better caliper). The morning was bright, sun smack pumping heat. It was chill enough for light wind jackets but we knew that a 90+ degree day lay ahead down here. The roads were clear of vehicles at 6 am as Janna and I wound through the streets of Banning that I had ridden the day before to get to the bike shop. And then we passed the bike shop with a laugh and continued on into Beaumont.
Down paved backroads along the foothills we began to rise. The climbing became steep as dried summer grasslands kissed the asphalt road shoulders. It got steep enough that I jumped off my bike and had to push it up several sections of notable grades through Yucaipa. The thousand feet or so of gain was instantly lost as we descended through the neighborhoods outlying Yucaipa and hit Highway 38. The day just felt like one of those summer scorchers where early morning hits already too hot. I was dripped sweat and it was barely 8 am. On the outskirts of Yucaipa, we stopped at a Rite Aid along the road for bathrooms and Gatorade. The goal was to stay hydrated.
The Sierra Cascades continued along countryside rising from urbanity. We swung a right on Highway 38 and gaped at the road that entered a schism between hills on the official up-climb through the San Bernadino Mountains. We pulled off in facilities for the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association for one last bathroom break as we knew we were going to be riding the edge of a highway for a few hours where privacy for privy would be scarce. It was time to push cause the Sun was rising still.
To our rights, the highway and its generous shoulder crossed over a mountain-desert streambed that was flush with green riparian growth and pockets of pooled water. The entrance sign to the San Bernadino National Forest along the shoulder where we stopped for photos. I knew this route spanned a significant number of public land domains, and part of my personal interest stemmed in figuring out which ones we passed through. Another National Forest on the list was checked off. Janna and I continued riding up the road as it became increasingly steep through the heart of the canyon amongst ridges. A large creek drainage sat on our rights as we biked along a dream-shoulder of cyclists. Honestly, this shoulder was so wide that a semi-truck could probably ride down it. It felt so reassuring after yesterday's switchbacks down San Jacinto with no shoulder whatsoever. The hills were still brown with dried summer grass, but spurts of green chapparal and distant green-tree-dotted-peaks rose around.
Janna and I stopped at several pullouts to shake out our legs and let them recoup from the incredibly steep climb. Evidence of a recent burn stood on hill flanks now charred while new meadow grow of neon green took advantage of the cleared valleys. We continued biking to a junction where Highway 38, our route, took a sudden hairpin turn and began ascending even steeper terrain. I immediately pulled off my bike as I realized our generous shoulder was giving way to absolutely nothing but white-line painted adjacent to cliff face. "Shit!" I thought as semblance of safety eroded to risky highway edge riding. This grade was so steep that I had to drop my cadence to a subtle churn under my granny gear. But we were in, committed to riding the Sierra Cascades and making it to Big Bear.
I put kept turning pedals ever so slowly as a litany of traffic passed us by. At one point, the solid rock face adjacent to our rights came up to the white line only a half foot from our shoulders. I looked up and four human heads were peeping out from behind a rock at me. I sat upright quickly to get a better view and realized we were coming up on four construction workers, themselves minimized in space, with flat backs against the rock and heads cocked peering at us. We passed them and I looked in my rear mirror to see them slack-jawed-awed that bicyclists were riding up this highway and mountain.
The road was steep but became ever-so-perceptively less-so. We caught up to the green pines as desert chapparal fell away and conifers sprang up on cliffsides. Distant peaks were fire-scarred from past burns. But around us was summer shade where we slowed our pedaling even more to catch a reprieve from sun. We arrived by mid-morning at Angelus Oaks. I was a bit incredulous about this; I this seemed a decent halfway point up the mountain as any, so the fact that we had made it was a big relief in my mind. The Country Store sat in the village where we leaned our bikes and walked inside to gather Gatorades and food. Triscuits and Fritos bean dip hit the spot, along with some apples and two cold electrolyte drinks each. I talked to the cashier for a while before making my way out to the shade with Janna where we victoriously ate our food in the shade of the building.
Janna told me my face looked ridiculous from the amount of mineral sunscreen I had lathered on this morning. We took a selfie to examine our respective faces and laughed at the clown paint smeared by sweat and itching. After eating for bit, we wrapped up and got back on the bikes to begin the next 4000/5000 feet of gain. I felt calmer now that we were in the pines. Shade was relatively abundant so the threat of triple digits felt less at-hand. We climbed and climbed through the abundance of trees as distant peaks got closer and the elevation continued to gain. I stopped at every pullout on either side of the road to gaze over the edge at the incredible sprawl of mountain range and valley around us.
In early afternoon we stopped for a long break at a campground nestled in the trees but closed for COVID. We walked our bikes around the car gate to a picnic table to sit in the shade. Luckily, a water pump was functional for the season so I was able to refill our supplies. Afterwards, the shoulder on the highway began to really open up again. The wider the shoulder, the more relaxed I felt. But countering that was a nagging fear that the heat and physical exertion were going to give me rhabdo. Ever since I had been treated for rhabdomyolysis last autumn, I had been paranoid and panicked about it occurring again. I kept stopping to pee and intensely analyze its color. I was thinking constantly about salt and water intake. About the temperature. About the physical effort. But as the elevation gained and the worst of the heat abated (despite my intense sweating), my fears of rhabdo began to subside as well.
By mid afternoon we hit 8000 feet in elevation at Onyx Pass with only several hundred to go. We were worked to the bone from the up-and-downs, but ultimately cumulative ups that put us around 8000 feet of gain. It was remarkable to me that we had climbed all the way up here. Sugarloaf Mountain and San Gorgonio Mountain rose dramatically to sweep the altitude above us and catch my eyes. We felt strong and yet exhausted - a perfect combination. After a pass at 8300 feet, we began a long and beautiful descent downhill into Big Bear nestled in a flat and expansive high-elevation valley. Large pines dappled shadow and light across the afternoon pavement and we were alive. We rolled down the avenues and highway shoulder into Big Bear City where a turn into a network of homes set in the trees led us to a cabin. One of Janna's coworkers at her old school owned a cabin in the area and said we could stay in it for a few days for free.
As soon as we pulled into the cabin's driveway, a neighbor came over to introduce herself. She said she had been keeping an eye out for us all day and couldn't believe we had biked up here. Me either.
The cabin was exactly what we wanted. We stored our bikes out back, carried our bags in, and got to work taking long and wonderful showers. After, we dawned some relatively clean clothes, caught a cab in the area, and were whisked away downtown for some dinner dining options. After a great meal at an Indian restaurant, we caught the same cab back to the cabin where we settled into watching some TV before falling asleep hard.