Ghost Roads- by Grannygear
Ghost roads. Across the country there are roads with a history; roads once used daily by thousands of travelers, now bypassed and largely forgotten. Too narrow, too steep, too remote; in the rush to ‘get somewhere’ the masses required broader, smoother, faster means of crossing the land. And so Ghost Roads lie there still, sometimes still driveable, sometimes not, often gated but open to non-motorized travel, more often a bit worse for wear. You might get away with a road bike on a Ghost Road, and you could ride them on a mountain bike, but the sweet middle ground for a Ghost Road is something in between both of those.
And that is just fine for gravel bikes off on a bit of an adventure. Southern California has a few of these roads but not too many. The same progress that creates a Ghost Road is also the monster that devours it. Progress and property development are relentless out here. One that has remained nearly intact is right out my front door.
The Old Ridge Route opened to travel in 1915 as an engineering marvel. Shaving time off the arduous drive between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, it was originally dirt then concrete over that. Six hundred and ninety seven curves allowed creaking and rattling trucks and cars to ascend along multiple ridges, surrounded by chaparral. In this hot and dry part of the country, it was a remote byway, but it had several stops that brought civilization into the hills. Tumble Inn. Reservoir Summit. The Halfway Inn. Sandbergs Resort. All that is left of these safe havens and others like them are crumbling foundations, but they would have been busy with weary travelers or sightseers seeking rooms and meals. It is hard to imagine how much this would have seemed to be the ends of the earth back in 1920. Even now it is lonely and remote feeling.
In 1933, U.S. Route 99 bypassed the Ridge Route and even that highway was later eclipsed by Interstate 5. Part of Highway 99 is still accessible but the 5 Freeway and Pyramid Lake covered over much of the Ridge Route and Hwy 99. Neither of these Ghost Roads are intact as they were originally laid down. But both of them make for fine bicycle travel. The better surfaced sections of them are used often by local road cycling groups who favor them for the climbing challenges and the few cars that frequent them.
The old concrete surface of the Ridge Route is still visible here and there. Much of it has been covered in asphalt or re-aligned, so it is not as curvy as it used to be. In some places it is all dirt, but more often it is pot holed and cracked, covered in sand or rubble. It makes for a perfect adventure ride with the right bike under you. There are notable points along the route. Swede’s Cut. Reservoir Summit. They are frozen in time and space, marking our progress as we pedal. I can’t imagine any of the builders of this Ghost Road imagining bicycle travel here. But it is now the perfect conveyance.
I have been riding it in sections for years, long before gravel bikes were around, but I had never ridden it as a big adventure ride loop, beginning and ending at home. Ride With GPS gave me the stats: 68 miles and 8K’ of elevation gain. Not hugely epic, but not a cruise either, and I would be riding largely self supported so that ups the ante a bit. I will see that water bottle and raise you two.
I would be riding my Ti gravel bike, but I had a wheel/tire choice to make. Since a great deal of this would be over normal paved roads, running my typical WTB 42c Resolutes would be less than ideal, but since I had the option of some 650bx47 WTB Byways or Horizons on some WTB KOM 27.5 hoops, it was a simple decision to run the smoother rolling yet high volume tires for the day. I have to say I do enjoy having that option on a gravel bike, even if I do not use it all that often. I could have run the Byways, but I have found the Horizons to be pretty good even in dirt, and there would be less technical dirt on this ride. They also corner really well on the fast paved descents like I would be seeing. So I prepped the Horizons with some Orange Seal Endurance sealant, set them to 35psi, and lubed up the chain. Good to go.
I love planning bigger rides like this, especially solo ones. My life does not allow a lot of horizon chasing, so when I do get the chance to wander a bit, what better place than on a Ghost Road? Friday morning broke with overcast, gloomy skies, typical of June weather in So Cal. I expected that to last until I gained enough elevation to get above the grey, then it would turn warm, likely into the low 80s. I had my Tangle Bag on the frame and 2 bottles in the cages. To augment water and clothing capacity, I also had on a Camelbak Chase Vest, the first time I had used it.
One hour of climbing up and out of suburbia brought me to the first gate on this Ghost Road. Even though I had only been passed by one or two cars, once past the gate it would be zero cars unless I come across someone working on the many pipelines, etc, that cross the hills. The climbing continued. At 2 hours I was at Reservoir Summit. I expected to not descend much until about 3 hours into the ride and even then there would be little downhill or flat sections for some time to come.
Up I pedaled, seemingly into decades past as the smooth rolling Horizons muted the cracks and potholes of this old lady of a road. Her wrinkles are showing, yet only add character. You can almost imagine the clattering of old cars wheezing along the torturous curves and steep grades. I was doing a bit of wheezing myself and I was surprised how much the ride had taken out of me once I hit the high point of the first 30 miles. Some days you have it and then some days not so much.
Today was the latter. No worries. I stopped briefly at the site of the Sandberg Resort, now only a bit of crumbling concrete walls and slabs, stuffed some trail mix down, and pedaled on, enjoying the first real descent all morning. The sun was out now and I was past the Ghost Road section and on public roads, but still the rest of the route would see little vehicle traffic on a late workday morning.
It was beautiful out here and quiet too. To the left, the Tejon Ranch, what I believe is the largest contiguous private land holding in the state, loomed up out of the flat, desert plain. The Tehachapi Mountains stood more north, the flanks dotted with wind turbines. To the right, small ranches pass by as I ride, often with the sound of a working tractor or a sign for peaches or cherries or eggs for sale.
On a gradual uphill section, a place that I had expected to be making time, I was dealing with flat legs. Nearly flat road, nearly flat legs. Bummer. Got nothing. Nada. Zilch. Then that all too familiar feeling of a tight pull, deep in the inner thigh… signs of Cramping Ahead flashed in my brain. Danger Will Robinson! I lessened the effort, buuuuuutttt…ZIIIINNNGGG! ARRRGGGHHH!!! Sigh. Rising out of the saddle I was able to continue, using different muscles differently, but this was not a good situation. I still had 35-ish miles to go and some good climbing ahead, one hill being 20 minutes long at an average 10% grade, hitting you in the groin at about 50 miles into the ride. I was verklempt.
Leg cramps are my Kryptonite. Bonking? No…never have bonked. Cramped? Oh lord yes. One time on a 60 mile, desert endurance race event (on an SS no less) I was cramping from my feet to my crotch….what do you do when you cannot even hike your bike? Crawl-a-bike? I survived but, ouch.
I had a back up plan for today though. I only needed to get over two more climbs then I had a fast descent that took me right past an old friend’s house. Soft pedaling that 36×36 gear, I was able to summit those two climbs and then zoom-zoom down to the waiting wings of my ‘trail angel’ friend. That gave me a bit of time to drink a lot, eat some, and, best of all, steal some of his Sport Legs tablets. I have had good success with Sport Legs, often having them bring me back from the brink. Somewhat buttressed, I pedaled on with a few miles of climbing ahead before I could rest a bit.
The local forests are not what they used to be. As I pedaled along past gated roads that lead to now closed campgrounds, closed due to lack of funding to maintain and police them, I remembered them in my mind as I knew them when I was a boy. It was greener here then and less arid. Streams were more common and the campgrounds would be full on weekends; smoke rising from campfires that we cannot even have now even if we could still camp here. It’s sad. In many ways California is a ruined place.
With flagging but somewhat stable legs, I came to my final right turn leading to the last leg of the journey. Ahead lay 26 miles of canyon road with at least 20 miles of it downhill. Yay! Except for the headwind. Oh yes. That. No rest for the weary. Unfair it was, this resistance to my forward progress. In the drops and pedaling with as much moxie as I could muster, I was struck by how lovely a 650bx47c slick tire is on bad roads; like magic little pillows of speed. These would so be a dynamite bike packing tire for mixed surface routes.
Then I was there…my final nemesis. The crotch kicker. A 20 minute road climb at around 10% in the full sun. The crux move. Past that I still had some rollers to get over, but this bad boy kind of hurts when you are tired. Worst of all, it is almost straight with no sharp bends and you can see the top waaaay up there. But ya’ gotta’ love gravel bike gearing. 1 to 1 gearing is pretty sweet. Up I went and the summit was attained with no real drama. 10 miles of rolling pavement and I was back at home, the last three being on a ripping descent.
After six hours and twelve minutes of riding time and around seven hours total, I was pretty empty. What had begun on a Ghost Road hours before had come full circle back to my driveway. It was much harder then I thought it would be and that was just fine with me. What is not hard is seldom worth the trouble.
Ghost Roads beckon. But they often ask a high price for the passage.
About The Author: Grannygear hails from SoCal and spent most of his cycling days as a mountain biker from the formative years of mountain biking all the way up to the present day. His day job is in the tech sector, but he has spent time writing about off road 4X4’s, 29″ mountain bikes, and cycling in general. Grannygear and Guitar Ted have worked off and on together since 2009 after a chance meeting at Interbike. With gravel cycling on the rise, Grannygear has been exploring how this genre’ works in SoCal and now does guest pieces for RidingGravel.com in his spare time.