Distance: 81-mile loop with a spur
Elevation gain: 3370 ft
The Mix Canyon leg of this ride is covered thoroughly in words and pictures at toughascent.com.
This loop goes through the best riding in the area between the Wine Country and Davis. I learned it from my Sacramento bike club, the Bike Hikers, who ride it every year. It’s got two great climbs, two scenic farming valleys, and an unpleasant stretch through the urban streets of Fairfield to get from one valley to the other. With the exception of Fairfield, it’s all very pretty.
Navigation is tricky through Fairfield. Note the road condition alert regarding Cantelow Road in Afterthoughts.
(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)
Ride out of Winters on Hwy 128. The road winds nicely, but it is a highway, so there is a traffic presence—if you get out early in the day it shouldn’t be a problem. A short climb takes you to Lake Berryessa—take a moment to ogle the dam. Most of the car traffic is pulling boat trailers and heading for the lake, so once you’re past Berryessa the bulk of the traffic should be going in the other direction. When you leave the lake you do a short climb and a short descent, followed by the first big climb of the day (called Cardiac Hill by the locals, a bit overdramatically—it’s really pretty dull) and a longer descent. Watch for Hwy 121, Monticello Rd, on your L and take it. It’s a big intersection with a prominent store on the R side of Hwy 128.
This stretch of road, Hwy 121 between Hwy 128 and Wooden Valley Rd., is, in terms of tread, road contour, and scenery, the best riding on the entire route. In fact, all 12 miles of Monticello Rd. is superb, and would make a world-class out and back—glassy smooth surface, delicious and constantly changing contour, gorgeous oak canopies—were it not for the traffic. There’s no shoulder, no passing lanes, and no sight lines, and the cars drive the road aggressively and impatiently. If you can get there early enough in the day to beat the cars, it’s sublime. My ultimate fantasy is that the authorities close Monticello to cars one day a year. Some summer morning I’m going out there at first light and ride all of it.
When Wooden Valley Rd takes off to the L, take it. You won’t climb again until Cantelow Rd. Enjoy this stretch of road—it’s slightly downhill, the road surface is glass, and the scenery is bucolic. Go L on Wooden Valley Cross Rd., then R on Gordon Valley Rd. Ride to Manka’s Corner (a small complex of restaurants and shops that defies labeling and is very bike-friendly) and take a deep breath, because you now need to work your way through Fairfield on surface streets to Pleasants Valley Rd. heading north.
There is no direct or apparent route through town. Here’s the map’s version: Go south from Manka’s Corner on Manka’s Corner Rd. Stay on it as it turns to Abernathy Rd. (unsigned, as far as I could tell). Go L on Rockville Rd. at the round-about. Rockville Rd. becomes Texas St. as you pass under Hwy 80. Follow Texas as it becomes N. Texas St. Go R on E. Travis St., in two blocks go L on Dover St., and stay on Dover for exactly 3.2 miles until you see a sign showing an outline of a bicycle and an arrow. At that point cross Dover onto the hard-to-notice bike path (it climbs sharply up from the sidewalk and feels all wrong), and follow the path as it becomes a road running along the edge of Hwy 80 and leads to a Stop sign on Lagoon Valley Rd. Go L on Lagoon Valley, immediately crossing over Hwy 80. Stay on Lagoon Valley, which quickly becomes Cherry Glen. In 1 mile Pleasants Valley Rd. goes L off Cherry Glen. Phew!
Head north on Pleasants Valley Rd, through the second of our two bucolic valleys. You can go straight up Pleasants Valley to Putah Creek Rd. on the R (just before you run into Hwy 128) and take Putah Creek back to Winters, but we’re going to take two detours to take in two climbs, one sweet, the other a beast. To do this, turn R onto Vaca Valley Rd. from Pleasants Valley Rd., go L when Vaca Valley dead-ends at Gibson Canyon Rd, then L on Cantelow Rd. Cantelow will take you up a beautiful, varied, not-too-long climb that’s a joyous sweat after all that lovely valley riding. A short, steep drop down the back side of Cantelow Hill deposits you back on Pleasants Valley Rd.
Again, you can go R on Pleasants Valley to Putah Creek Rd. and home if you’ve had enough, but there’s one more climb we don’t want to miss. Turn L on Pleasants Valley, back toward Fairfield, and ride about a mile to an infamous destroyer of legs called Mix Canyon Rd. on your R. Mix is a 4.5-mile dead-end road that starts out climbing easily for a mile, then gets steep for 2.5 miles, then gets really really steep (like 20%+). It’s such an iconic climb that the local cycling club has installed distance markers every tenth of a mile, which prove to be great motivators (you can always make it one more tenth of a mile). Around the 3-mile marker is written on the road, “Turn around or die.” There’s no shame in bailing before the end. I encourage you to go to mile 2.3 (and I’ve taken the map that far and no further) because the pitch is never frightful until then (OK, there’s a stretch of 14% but it doesn’t last), and the descent coming back is so exhilarating it’s hard to breathe. It’s the fourth-best descent in our list, after Tunitas Creek Rd., the McKenzie Highway, and Robinson Canyon Rd. Nor is the Mix ascent just a leg-breaking exercise—it’s as pretty in there as anywhere on our ride list, with huge oaks and maples making a canopy over your head as you ride. If you persevere beyond 2.3 miles, good for you (I traditionally bail at 3.2), but I warn you, past 2.5 it gets less pretty, and coming back down that steep stuff is too steep to be much fun—just a lot of braking.
At the bottom of Mix, turn L on Pleasants Valley Rd. and ride to Putah Creek Rd., where you turn R and ride to a stop sign at a sloppy T where you go L at about 10 o’clock, go over what used to be an charming, rickety bridge and is now a modern, boring bridge, and find yourself back in Winters.
Adding miles: At the turn-off to Monticello Rd. you can keep riding west on Hwy 128. If anything the road contour gets better and the scenery prettier, but the traffic gets very treacherous, with no shoulder and no passing opportunities. I did it once, and I was truly rattled. If you want to gut it out, get off 128 ASAP, on Berryessa Knoxville Rd or Lower Chiles Rd. From there, everything to the north and west of you is very good riding, all the way to the Napa Valley and our Wine Country section.
Afterthoughts: as of 4/1/17, the surface of Cantelow Road from Gibson Canyon Road to the summit is a disaster. It’s barred by several car-stopping barricades you can work your way around, and you can make it through with effort, but it’s an adventure.