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 a few boring miles through the outskirts of Fairfield to get from one valley to the other. There is no great wow factor, but, with the exception of the Fairfield miles, it’s all very pretty and pleasant.
You want to think about when you do this ride. On summer afternoons, it’s hot. On weekends, the traffic around Berryessa is obnoxious. On Monday and Tuesday everything in Manka’s Corner is shut down, so you will have one and only one opportunity for resupplying water and food: the shopping center at the corner of Waterman and Hilborn in Fairfield.
If you aren’t up for a big day, it’s easy to take about half of the hard out. Just skip both of the climbing detours.
There is a bike shop in Winters, closed Monday and Tuesday.
(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 meanders nicely, but it is a highway, so there is a traffic presence—if you get out early in the day or ride on a weekday it shouldn’t be a problem. Once the road begins to climb up to Lake Berryessa at mile 9, it continues to go up and down vigorously to the Hwy 121 turn-off (2000 ft of gain in 11 miles).
The climb to Lake Berryessa is pleasantly short. 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 the first noticeable climb of the day (called Cardiac Hill by the locals, a bit overdramatically—it’s really pretty dull). At around 20 miles take Hwy 121, Monticello Rd, on your L. It’s a big intersection with several buildings on the R side of Hwy 128, all closed except for a church (so no resupplying).
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. But at any time but peak hours it isn’t busy. Last time I rode it at 11 am on a Tuesday in July and it was deserted.
When Wooden Valley Rd takes off to the L, take it. Inexplicably, there is no road sign marking WVR, but it’s big, it’s the only real road that goes L from Monticello, and there’s a “bike route” sign on it as a hint. You won’t climb again until Cantelow Rd. This is a sweet stretch of road—it’s slightly downhill, the road surface is glass, and the scenery is postcard agricultural, with lots of what I like to think of as California Ground Cover (vineyards). Go L on Wooden Valley Cross Rd., then R on Gordon Valley Rd. Ride to Manka’s Corner. You can go stay on WVR at the cross road if you want—most of WVR to Manka’s is nice—but Gordon Valley Rd. is a mite more undeveloped.
Manka’s Corner is a small hamlet that includes a mercantile and two restaurants and is very bike-friendly…except on Monday and Tuesday, when all the shops are closed. In desperation, I begged water from the Vezer Wine Tasting Room, where the people were very friendly.
Continue through Manka’s Corner onto Manka’s Corner Rd., which becomes Waterman. At the intersection of Waterman and Hilborn Rd. is a large shopping center with the usual fast food and sandwich shops for reprovisioning—the sole reliable reprovisioning spot on the entire route. Go L on HIlborn, L on Lyon Rd, L on Cherry Glen, and L on Pleasants Valley Rd. Most of this is generic suburban sprawl with good bike lanes, neither memorable nor dreadful. If you take the Vista Grande detour suggested by a reader, you skip some of Waterman (which is big but not threatening) and miss the resupply at the shopping center.
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 PCR 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. You can ride Cantelow in the other direction, which transforms the climb into a short little stinker.
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., a mostly straight, flat road whose only merits are the lack of traffic and the fact that it goes straight back to your car. Turn R on PCR 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. If you’re seriously retro, you can take the old railroad bridge immediately adjacent to the new road bridge, which is now a pedestrian crossing of some charm.
Shortening the route: Either Wooden Valley or Pleasants Valley makes a fine mostly flat out-and-back. Mix Canyon by itself makes a peerless hill climb. Cantelow Rd., over and back, is a lovely outing as well, some work but nothing daunting.
Adding miles: Davis is a justly famous cycling hub, but the riding nearby is mostly dead flat and boring. At our 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 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 good riding, all the way to the Napa Valley and our Wine Country section.