By Chris Bateman

For The Union Democrat

My answer was “no, absolutely not, not now, not ever.”

The question, which came from fellow cyclist David Clay about a week ago, was “Are you going to ride the Old Priest Grade Hill Climb?”

The climb was Saturday, starting at the base of the grade near Moccasin and ending 1.9 miles and 1,900 vertical feet later at Priest Station.

It’s a grueling, unpleasant ordeal – and that’s when you’re driving a car. On a bike, it’s like riding through purgatory, then hell.

How bad is it? “It does NOT get any harder than this,” reports PJamm Cycles, a website specializing in tough bike climbs. “Eye-popping, temple exploding.”

Even Amgen Tour of California organizers sent the race’s world-class cyclists up the relatively docile new grade (Highway 120) over OPG in mapping a Sonora-to-Clovis stage in 2012.

Then throw in the fact that I’m 73, hadn’t ridden throughout a two-week vacation in the Northwest, and had terrible memories of an ill-advised ascent up the grade more than a decade ago.

My answer was obvious. It’s what I’d say if someone had asked me to go waterboarding Saturday.

Then I read “Making the Grade,” Guy McCarthy’s story in last Wednesday’s Union Democrat. More than 100 cyclists had signed up. The road would be closed to traffic, there’d be water stations and a cool, early morning start. Plus, I might get in a movie about the ride, which would honor pioneering mountaineer Tom Frost.

Frost always wanted to ride up Old Priest, but died at 82 before he had the chance.

So would I die before I get another chance??

Not wanting to risk it, I changed my mind. “I’m going to do it,” I announced to Marv Ordway and Kelley George, who I’ve been riding with on Thursday mornings for years.

They looked at me like I had announced I would climb Everest naked.

“Monitor your heart beat,” cautioned Marv, knowing I suffer from atrial fibrillation. “Don’t be afraid to fail,” advised Kelley, which I translated as, “You are going to fail.”

Indeed, I was terrified I would fail. OPG was tough enough in my late 50s. How grueling might it be in my mid-70s? And how humiliating would it be to walk my bike as others rode by?

Still, my alarm rang at 4 a.m. Saturday, I pulled into Moccasin before sunup and my ride from the powerhouse parking lot to the starting line at the bottom of the grade was tough enough.

Some time later, about 20 certified high-end cyclists took off for a timed race up the grade. All were trim, wiry and aboard bikes that cost more than a lot of cars. One of them slipped out of his cleats at the start and nearly fell. This made me feel better.

Next I sized up my competition, and realized I was not the oldest rider. That honor went to Erv Kroeker, a 78-year-old Tuolumne County cycling legend who late in life has completed scores of centuries and more than 100 triathlons.

“This is the hill,” he said, leaning on his red carbon-fiber bike. “The rest of the grades around here are just bumps.”

Then there was Lynn Kemp, a fellow Columbian and one of the area’s top riders. She was trim, tanned and, I was disappointed to see, carrying a full water bottle.

Fellow cyclists call Lynn “the camel,” as she’s able to complete tough, long rides while drinking little or nothing. I shuddered to think of how fast she might be if fully hydrated.

“I’m going to take it steady,” Lynn said, so I figured I’d tuck in behind her and see if I could keep up.

I couldn’t.

We both started near the tail end of maybe 60 cyclists. And from the starting line on, the back of her jersey was all I saw. We both passed a few riders, but I was never within shouting distance of Lynn. She was like a highway mirage, regularly disappearing, then reappearing even farther away.

Within a quarter mile, I was into serious drudgery, sweating, huffing and looking at my computer in hopes I didn’t sink below 3 mph, the point where keeping a bike upright becomes dicey. That said, going down at that snail-like speed would be far more humiliating than painful.

Bottom line: There is little style or technique involved in this ride. It’s pretty much grunt work.

Shifting strategy? Yes, most Old Priest riders had high-tech, ultra-light bikes with more than 20 gears. Some even had electronic shifters. But that’s all moot on the grade. For me and, I’m sure, for many of my fellow cyclists, this is a one-gear ride: You use granny’s granny, and that’s it.

Then there’s conversation. On 100-mile century rides, you get to know your fellow riders on the flat stretches. You tell jokes and stories, brag, complain about your lot in life, by turns boring and fascinating anyone who might pedal alongside.

Heck, on Lodi’s Delta Century, whose 100 miles are dead flat, you could probably strike up a relationship, go through stages of infatuation and disillusion, then break up with a someone you might have been in love with at the 50-mile mark.

This cannot happen on the OPG.

“Hey, you from Chico?” yelled out a much younger rider somewhere beyond the halfway point. He had noticed my Wildflower Century jersey. Totally gassed, I did not reply. “Can you talk??” the guy persisted.

“I can gasp,” I gasped, somehow gasping further that I was from Columbia. Mercifully, the guy had no follow-up questions. This “conversation” was the entire soundtrack of my ride.

And what about those water stations, which I had earlier thought were a major plus?

They amounted to shaded clearings, each with several large water bottles. To get a drink, you’d have to pull over, decant yourself a cup or two, then climb back on your bike and resume the slog.

This was not going to happen. “If you’re riding through hell, you don’t stop to rest,” advised a fellow rider. Indeed, if I had taken a water break, I was sure I would not get back on the bike.

And I probably only drank from my on-board water bottle twice. At 3 mph, there was too much risk of becoming distracted, losing balance and stopping – for good.

With less than a half-mile left, I convinced myself I might actually make it. In fact I even wheezed encouragement to a couple of fellow riders who were in clear agony. But then I rounded a turn and came face to face with an enemy that could undo me: the sun.

Suddenly, it seemed, I was in its full glare and the temperature shot up by 20 or 30 degrees. The slope ahead was even steeper than the last, and doubt began to creep in. But then I heard a sound that kept me going: cowbells, horns, and shouts of encouragement. It was the finish line.

Somewhere ahead, my friend Lynn was crossing the line at Priest Station. And I would too.

I did, in 28 minutes and 47 seconds. That’s a bit better than 4 mph.

Lynn beat me by about 40 seconds. “But I might be a few years older than you,” I told her.

“What?” she grinned. “You’re playing the age card??”

“It’s all I have in my hand,” I answered.

(OPG Postscripts: Rob English, the Oregon frame builder who designed a lightweight bike for Tom Frost to ride up Priest, won the timed race in 15 minutes and change. Erv Kroeker was about a minute behind me and vowed to ride the grade again next year. And the year after that, and the year…well, you get the idea. Lynn Kemp was not finished. She asked if I wanted to join her in pedaling over to Coulterville and then back to Moccasin on 49. I said no – just as if she asked me to go waterboarding. And next year’s OPG climb? Well, I’ll get back to you on that).

Chris Bateman retired in 2011 after 38 years as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Union Democrat.