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Free Wheelin'

mountain biking
Christopher Gardner

Ride Any Mountain: The Bay Area provides every sort of terrain for mountain-bike enthusiasts.

A tale of two landscapes, both perfect for mountain biking

By Eric Johnson

FOR THE PAST 14 years, I've been mountain biking in Montana, a state that smugly bills itself as "The Last Best Place." The folks I used to ride with are nice people, but they get cocky about being in mountain-bike heaven. However, since coming back to Central California three weeks ago, I've heard from everyone with a bicycle that this place rules. Montana has lots of real wilderness. So what does San Jose have?

After only two days on the trail, I can tell you--but you probably already know. Wild variety. Incredible diversity. More different kinds of stuff. In a 24-hour period last week, within a half-hour's drive of Metro HQ on South First Street, I found myself in two landscapes that might have been in different countries. One is a prime example of rolling mountain meadowland with clusters of ancient splaying oaks. The other is a perfect specimen of dramatic redwood forest with spectacular ocean views. OK, I gotta admit: Nothing like this in Montana.

Both were ridgeline rides, but everything about the terrain was different. Different trees, flowers, birds--they even smelled different from one another.

To an ecologist, this amazing biological variety presents an interesting subject of study. But to a mountain biker, this study in diversity was not so much an intellectual exercise.

Riding a bicycle is the perfect way to spend time out in nature. Riding uphill, which is hard and slow, you get to admire prairie wildflowers here and forest ferns there. Riding downhill, which is hard and fast, everything everywhere is a blur. Which is cool.

It makes you understand why, soon after they harnessed fire, our forebears invented the wheel.

I usually prefer in-and-out trails to loops. I like to make like a mountain goat on the way in--generally a climb--and make like the guys in the Mountain Dew ads on the way out. The Long Ridge Trail is a loop of the worst kind--it ends with a butt-busting uphill push. I'd still recommend it in a heartbeat.

It starts and ends just west of the junction of Highway 9 and Skyline Boulevard at the Saratoga Gap. It more or less follows Skyline, usually at a good-enough distance, through coastal live oaks, massive 600-year-old Douglas firs and second-growth redwoods. In the shadows, there are bracken ferns and sword ferns and numerous other fern species I can't name. (Be careful--there's lots of poison oak.)

This time of year, the purple giant wake robin and the pale-yellow mountain iris compete for prettiest trailside flower. (My vote, having recently returned, goes to the California poppy, less rare than its lovely neighbors but unique to our home state.)

The Long Ridge Trail goes on and on, earning its name by weaving off into cool wooded thickets and back out to the grassy ridge. You will need a map or a guidebook to find your way. There are several opportunities to drop off onto side trails to the east and loop back to the parking lot (which was empty when I arrived early Wednesday afternoon and packed with after-work bikers when I came out around 7:30pm).

On the other side of the valley, it's a different world. The Grant Ranch, 13 miles from east San Jose up the road to Mt. Hamilton, is laced with trails. All involve a lotta up-and-down through steep rolling hills. Throughout, you are among world-class valley oaks, which feature some of the most magnificent architecture in the plant kingdom.

From the top of Los Huecos trail, the view is glorious, whether you choose to focus on the details in close range or let your gaze drift to the distance. Up close, there are two-eyed violets, red-capped woodpeckers and outcrops of beautifully crumbling rock. Shimmering on the eastern horizon are the Diablo Range and the Gavilan Range, maybe even the southern Sierras. Just uphill, the Lick Observatory's white walls glow orange.

Off in the west, because of the orientation of the hanging valley that is home to the 9,000-acre park, San Jose is obscured, but the southern reaches of the San Francisco Bay reflect the sunset if you time your ride just so.

And look closely at those valley oaks at the crest of the ridge. See there, in the bark, hundreds of little holes, all drilled by those woodpeckers, and in every hole, a carefully placed acorn. Hmmm.

There's a small lake below you and thousands of swallows soaring and diving above--just looking would be pleasure enough. But then the real fun begins, because it's a two- or three-mile downhill romp back to your car.

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From the May 1-7, 1997 issue of Metro

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