Old Priest Grade will be closed to vehicle traffic from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 24, for the Tom Frost Bike Ride Special Event, public works staff for Tuolumne County said Monday. Motorists are asked to use alternate routes. END BOX

About 130 bicyclists are signed up to ride in the Inaugural Tom Frost Memorial Old Priest Grade Hill Climb scheduled to begin at 6:45 a.m. Saturday.

It’s the first time in a long time that notoriously steep Old Priest Grade has been closed for a bicycle event. The Gold Rush-era horse and wagon road is 1.97 miles long with its steepest segments graded 18 percent to 20 percent, according to Duke York, retired deputy director for Tuolumne County roads and engineering.

Riders this Saturday will include 25 professional-level cyclists who have signed on to race up Old Priest Grade, as well as locals from the Motherlode Bicycle Coalition and the Tuolumne County Community Resource Agency, said Craig Flax, producer of a yet-to-be-completed Tom Frost Documentary film that will feature footage from the hill climb event.

“I’m riding in it,” David Gonzalves, director for the Tuolumne County Community Resource Agency, said Monday in a phone interview. Gonzalves said he’s an ardent cyclist and he rides a Kestrel carbon fiber frame with 22 speeds that weighs less than 19 pounds. He normally uses cleats on his bike shoes to clip in to his Shimano pedals, and he said he intends to do the same this Saturday morning.

“I will lock in and go,” Gonzalves said. “Try to make the climb.”

Spectators will be allowed on the Old Priest Grade route, Flax said. The reason organizers are fine with that is the competitors and riders will only be going uphill, so they’ll be going very slowly. There will be at least one safety vehicle on the route, several water stations will be set up, and safety personnel on the route will have radios, Flax said.

Frost dreamed of riding up Old Priest Grade

Frost, of Oakdale, was a key figure in a generation of Yosemite big-wall climbing pioneers in the 1960s. He was a godfather of rock climbing photography, in part because he was one of the few early big wall climbers who carried a camera and film. He died Aug. 24, 2018 at age 82. In his later years, he dreamed of riding up Old Priest Grade but never got the chance.

Riders this Saturday morning will also include world-class mountaineers and rock climbers, like People at this race this Saturday morning will include world-class mountaineers and rock climbers, like Conrad Anker and Hans Florine, who each have one of Tom Frost’s bikes, Flax said. Anker is brother of Steve Anker, manager at Priest Station Café, which will host a pancake breakfast for those who complete the Old Priest Grade climb. Conrad Anker said Tuesday he will not be riding the grade, “mostly there for the good fun!”

Rob Williams with the Motherlode Bicycle Coalition plans to ride the Old Priest Grade climb and he’s reached out to friends and other riders, Flax said. Williams said Monday four board members are riding Old Priest Grade this Saturday, including himself, Carl Baker, a former Caltrans District 10 senior planner, Jack Becker, a former executive director of Bakersfield Bicycle Coalition, and a resident of Sonora with Condor Engineering in Columbia, and Nikki Grimes from Groveland.

Gonzalves said he’s never tried Old Priest grade on his bicycle before.

“I just want to see if I can do it,” he said.

He’s ridden New Priest Grade but that’s not near as steep as Old Priest Grade. He said he’s never rode Wards Ferry Road either, but he does ride a lot around Twain Harte, Strawberry and Pinecrest.

Previous timed races up Old Priest Grade

Robert Leibold, a resident of Soulsbyville who’s been organizing bicycle races in California since 1971, said he helped run Old Priest Grade climbs for youth cyclists in the mid-1990s for three or four years.

“We used to have an annual race up that hill,” Leibold said Monday in a phone interview. “It was for juniors only, for riders under age 18. We had kids as young as 12 years old riding that hill. It was one of the climbs on the four-day Gold Nugget Stage Race in Mariposa and Tuolumne counties.”

Leibold still runs VeloPromo.com, which puts on 33 bicycle races each year at different locations up and down the Golden State.

Mike Phelps, a 76-year-old resident of Angels Camp who still bike-rides nearly every day, said Monday he used to ride Old Priest Grade in the late 1980s and 1990s. At least a dozen times, he said, probably 1982 was the first time. They were all rides, not races, except for one.

“We did one time trial there in the early to mid ‘90s,” Phelps said. “That included New Priest and Old Priest and then Marshes Flat Road. Old Priest was the hardest, absolutely.

“Those kids could flat get up that mountain in under 20 minutes, some of them,” Phelps said. “Us normal riders would ride it in 20 minutes or more.”

County should market its steepest roads to cyclists

Gonzalves and other Tuolumne County cyclists see the Old Priest Grade Hill Climb event as a unique opportunity for bicyclists and to bring more diverse tourism to Tuolumne County, because there are other steep roads that cyclists can enjoy when traffic is light or non-existent.

“I’m an avid cyclist, a lot of people are here,” Gonzalves said.

He rode to the top of Tioga Pass about six weeks ago, when the road was plowed but open only to cyclists that day. It was 91 miles roundtrip, from the Big Oak Flat entrance on Highway 120 to Tioga Pass and back.

“I’d love to see them do that for Highway 108 on the Tuolumne County side, before they open to the road to vehicles each spring,” Gonzalves said. “There are a lot of avid cyclists in the valley and in our county. A lot of people come to rent hotel rooms so they can cycle up here. The challenge is to expand it, include some these steeper roads, and market it.”

Gonzalves also said he’d like to see the Tom Frost Memorial Old Priest Grade Hill Climb become an annual event. Flax said he’s impressed by the interest locals have showed for this Saturday’s ride.

“Whether that will happen I don’t know,” Flax said. “We’re focused on Tom’s memorial, but there is a lot of enthusiasm there at the county and local level. They tell me we should be prepared for quite a few people lining the road to spectate.”

So how steep is Old Priest Grade? Historians may have the best answers.

“Back in wagon days the stages had to stop in Moccasin at the base of the grade and the passengers would have to get out and walk up to Priest Station,” said Florence Jansen, a docent at Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum. “It saved the horses. All the passengers were too much load going up that steep grade.”

Special bicycle for Old Priest Grade

Frost became famous in 1960s rock climbing circles because he did multi-day first ascents on El Capitan with other pioneering climbers, authors and gear heads like Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard and Chuck Pratt. What set Frost apart is he was one of the few to carry a camera and film, and he understood how to use them, capturing dramatic perspectives no one had seen or photographed before.

A few years ago, when Frost was 79 years old, he hired award-winning bicycle builder Rob English in Oregon to create a lightweight road bike to help him climb Old Priest Grade. Frost had shared his desire to ride a bike up Old Priest Grade with the Ankers, the family that has owned the land since the 1800s and run Priest Station at the top of the steep climb.

“He called me a few times wanting to do it,” Steve Anker said. “So his dream still lives.”

English said Monday by phone that Frost essentially wanted to make his Old Priest Grade frame and bicycle as light as possible, for the least possible resistance going uphill. That made the wheels particularly important, “because the wheels are rotating weight and you have to put that rotating inertia into the bike.”

English said he and Frost found some really light carbon fiber wheels from Germany and then some really light tires, not the most durable but very light weight. The final build came in weighing 13.1 pounds, English said.

Tom Seawell, director of the Tom Frost Documentary film, said Monday he believes English will win the bike race up Old Priest Grade. English said, “I’ll be there, that’s all I can promise. I’ll be riding. Whether I’ll be first up there I can’t say. I’ve never been there, never ridden it. So I can’t say.”

English says he has a lightweight road racing bike and he’ll be using the wheels that were made for Frost’s bike.

Frost was an engineer

Conrad Anker has the English-built Frost bike itself and he intends to ride it up Old Priest Grade. English said he put some sensible wheels and tires on the custom he made for Frost before he gave it to Conrad Anker.

“Tom was a very unique customer because he was an engineer himself,” English said. “He understood what he wanted and how it would go together. So he came to me with a full engineering drawing he’d done. I just suggested a few things and made a few minor adjustments. So he was really a pleasure to work with.”

Seawell, the Frost documentary director, said Frost was foremost an engineer, a Stanford graduate engineer. After his big wall exploits in Yosemite more than five decades ago, he developed a love for bike riding and building and he kept up with the bike racing scene.

“One of his goals was to get in enough shape to ride up Old Priest Grade one day with this new bike, but health and personal reasons kept his riding closer to home,” Seawell said. ”We wanted to keep his dream alive and produce the first annual ride in his name. The footage shot on Saturday will be used for the final ending of our documentary on Tom Frost. More importantly our goal is that this ride lives on for the next 100 years.”

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.